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McKenna lays out schools plan

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, left, and former state Sen. Dan McDonald discuss an education funding plan Tuesday in Tacoma. (Associated Press)
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, left, and former state Sen. Dan McDonald discuss an education funding plan Tuesday in Tacoma. (Associated Press)

Candidate would shift funds, limit growth elsewhere

Washington could spend more money on its public schools and colleges by limiting the growth in other state expenses and changing the way some property taxes are collected, a gubernatorial candidate said Tuesday.

Republican hopeful Rob McKenna released new details of his plans to increase spending on education, with an extra $1.25 billion for public schools and $437 million for colleges in the first two years of his tenure if he wins the Nov. 6 election.

After McKenna discussed the details in a pair of one-hour meetings with reporters, a spokeswoman for Jay Inslee, his chief Democratic rival, called it “empty promises.” The plan won’t generate the revenue McKenna expects, Jaime Smith said.

The state is under a Supreme Court mandate to spend more on public schools to meet its constitutional obligation to fund basic education. Along with the increased spending to meet that mandate, McKenna would reduce the number of students in kindergarten through third-grade classes from 25 students to 17 and expand kindergarten from a half to a full day.

Neither McKenna nor Inslee, who also talks about spending more on education, endorses a tax increase to pay for better schools. Gov. Chris Gregoire has said that’s unrealistic and contends the state will need to raise taxes to make improvements that satisfy the Supreme Court.

To pay for the changes he proposes, McKenna called for limiting the growth in other state programs to 6 percent, which he said would allow only for inflation and population growth. He’d look for ways to cut state spending on health care costs, shifting state employees to “cost-conscious” health care plans and getting more Medicaid patients into managed care. He’d also cut the number of state employees through attrition.

That would allow the state to spend more of the projected growth in state revenue on schools and colleges, he said.

McKenna said he’d also rearrange the way the state and local school districts collect property taxes. Right now, property owners pay a “common school levy” set by the Legislature and not subject to voter approval, and local school district levies that voters must approve. As state funding has declined, many districts have used their levies for “basic education” expenses the court said are state responsibilities.

Under McKenna’s plan, the state would increase its levy, and the local districts would lower theirs by a like amount. The state would send the extra money it collects to the school districts, which would use the money for the same school expenses as before but the money would be more stable, a quality the Supreme Court said current education funding lacks. Property owners would pay the same amount in taxes, at least initially.

McKenna has talked about spending more on education since the beginning of his campaign and has insisted he would do it without a tax increase. On Tuesday he provided a spreadsheet that calculated growth over the next eight years, climbing to $3.7 billion for public schools and more than $1 billion for colleges and universities in the 2019-’21 biennium.

He didn’t propose specific cuts to any department or agency but said the state would have “a whole basket of tools” to limit growth in non-education programs while putting more money into schools and colleges.

“This is a policy document,” he said.

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