In Our View: Fully Funding Education

Gubernatorial candidates should provide more details as Nov. 6 election nears

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Unlike Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna, the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) is not running for governor and, thus, is not promising the moon to voters when it comes to education.The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state is failing to meet its "paramount duty" (according to the state constitution) to fully fund K-12 education. Inslee and McKenna both say they can do that without raising taxes. Oh, really? The OFM says not so fast, and now that the two men have advanced past Tuesday's primary toward the Nov. 6 election, we hope both candidates will be more specific about plans for funding education. If doubt or confusion lingers among voters as late as Wednesday, Aug. 29, Inslee and McKenna can use their debate in Vancouver to roll out more details.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has said fully funding education cannot be accomplished without increasing taxes, and that message was repeated by her budget director in a recent Seattle Times story. "I'm thinking of political realities and budget realities and the uncertainties of the economy, and I can't see it today," Marty Brown said to the Times about fully funding education without increasing taxes.

What led Brown to that conclusion was a budget forecast released on Monday, projecting a shortfall of almost $1.5 billion by 2015. And, according to the Times, that's assuming the Legislature depletes the state's rainy day fund, which is designed to be used only during economic crises.

So far, McKenna's plan for boosting education funding without a tax increase includes a 6 percent cap on growth for all non-education spending. But Brown says that will require reducing state services. Furthermore, payments on state debt are projected to grow 12 percent per biennium, and medical costs will increase by 8 percent, according to the Seattle newspaper.

Inslee says he can achieve this formidable goal by relying on an economic recovery that would stimulate tax revenues.

As we've editorialized before, the best way to make state government more efficient is to align state workers' pay and benefits more closely with what is seen in the private sector. Specifically, putting state employees on a defined-contributions retirement plan similar to a 401(k) instead of a defined-benefits plan would add long-term stability to state spending.

Republican McKenna repeats the eminently proper party mantra about "real reforms" in state government. He wants to encourage low-income health care clients to enter managed care plans such as health-maintenance organizations. And, as the Times reported, he believes more competitive state contracting and reducing the state workforce through attrition will yield efficiencies.

Inslee, a Democrat, thinks education funding can be increased by closing tax breaks for corporations that don't create jobs, and by streamlining health care costs by increasing preventive care.

However, remember the crucial piece in this funding puzzle: the Legislature. Neither candidate can fully fund education by himself, and legislators have been busy in recent years just trying to keep their fiscal heads above water.

The Supreme Court has imposed measurement standards -- non-dictatorial but still meaningful -- that should encourage the Legislature to move toward meeting the constitutional mandate. That journey will take many years. In the three months leading up to the Nov. 6 election, Inslee and McKenna should focus on specific and achievable first steps.