Gubernatorial candidate McKenna talks education during Vancouver visit

AG praises nLight program, criticizes collective bargaining

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna made a stop in Vancouver on Monday to talk to nLight Corp. President Scott Keeney about the company’s program to prepare high school students for high-demand fields such as math and physics.

Keeney told McKenna that his nonprofit, dubbed nConnect, has a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education program that brings volunteers into the classroom to encourage students to enroll in Advance Placement college prep classes in those high-demand subjects.

NLight makes high-power, high-performance lasers used in part to manufacture consumer electronics such as smartphones and tablets.

During the conversation, McKenna said public schoolteachers’ collective bargaining agreements and salary rules in some instances can hinder education. He also said rising health care costs for state employees are “cannibalizing” the money Washington should be spending to improve its education system.

“We have to stop running the education system for the adults and start running it for the kids,” said McKenna, who serves as the state’s attorney general.

The state Supreme Court in January ordered the Legislature to make progress toward fully paying for basic education by 2018. As a result, K-12 education has been a focus for state lawmakers this year.

McKenna brought up the $13.2 million National Math and Science Initiative grant that Washington schools had to reject because the terms of the grant clashed with the collective bargaining agreements between teachers and schools. The grant would have increased pay to teachers who participated in the program.

McKenna said the state is shifting to a “knowledge-based economy,” where there is a higher demand for job candidates with post-secondary education. ­McKenna said everyone should go to some sort of college after high school, be that a university, community college or technical college.

McKenna also said college tuition should stop increasing, and policymakers should look to branch campuses such as Washington State University Vancouver when working on programs to bolster STEM education.

NConnect’s STEM program has linked more than 100 Southwest Washington high school students with the workplaces of Clark County companies including Frito-Lay, Micropump, Reliance Investing and SEH America. The program has more than 200 volunteers, Keeney said, and it is showing success at various schools, including those that have a higher rate of students receiving free and reduced-price school lunches.

“That’s impressive, no matter how you slice it,” McKenna told Keeney.

He later praised the idea of bringing industry professionals into schools to participate in extracurricular teaching. “You’re giving (students) another adult role model and mentor.”

McKenna also said there is a negative connotation associated with making teachers “teach to a test,” but it’s a good idea to enroll more students into STEM-related AP classes and have their teachers prepare them for the AP test. Teaching to a test isn’t bad, if the test prepares a student for college, he added.

He also expressed frustration with the number of students who need to take remedial classes upon entering community college because it shows they weren’t adequately prepared in high school.

“It’s like a do-over,” ­McKenna said. “It’s just ridiculous.”

The nConnect nonprofit, which was founded in 2005, isn’t alone in its mission, and the focus on science, technology, engineering and math isn’t new. Nationally, some leaders in business, government and academia have pointed to the need to boost the U.S. workforce by preparing more people for employment in so-called STEM fields.

NLight was founded in Seattle in 2000, but soon relocated to Vancouver to take advantage of the area’s semiconductor amenities. The company has about 400 employees — about 200 in Vancouver, 100 in Hillsboro, Ore., and the rest in other parts of the world.

McKenna’s Democratic opponent for governor, former U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, will visit Vancouver today to receive an endorsement from local firefighters, as well as tour Pacific Coast Shredding’s scrap metal facility.