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Jay Inslee, Bill Bryant vying to lead on education in Washington governor’s race

Republican candidate Bill Bryant, left, and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee take the stage at Columbia Basin College in Pasco for their gubernatorial debate Wednesday night, Oct. 19, 2016. (Greg Lehman / Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via Associated Press)
Republican candidate Bill Bryant, left, and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee take the stage at Columbia Basin College in Pasco for their gubernatorial debate Wednesday night, Oct. 19, 2016. (Greg Lehman / Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via Associated Press)

For decades, Democrats and Republicans have run for governor in Washington promising to be “the education governor.”

This year is no different. If anything, there are times when the gubernatorial candidates seem to be running for state school superintendent, a different office altogether.

With Washington under a state Supreme Court order to meet its constitutional obligation to school kids, contempt fines for failing to do that increasing by $100,000 a day and tough fights over education expected in next year’s Legislature, both candidates are trying to claim the political high ground on the issue.

Ask incumbent Jay Inslee, a Democrat, to name the biggest victory during his first term and he’s likely to mention increased funding for early-childhood education that will help lift low-income children out of poverty and help a youngster with a speech impediment or a learning disability. They’ll get a better chance for a normal life, he said, and “I’ll never know who those kids are.”

Ask Republican challenger Bill Bryant what he’d do about solving the Gordian Knot of public education and he’s likely to talk about increasing its share of the state budget as part of a four-point program to bring poorer school districts up to the level of their wealthier counterparts and develop innovations that include completely revamping the last two years of high school to add more technical training and apprenticeship programs.

“I’m running for governor because of education,” Bryant said at last week’s debate in Pasco.

He can even pivot to education from seemingly unrelated questions. During the debate, he quickly answered a question about whether he supports the Voting Rights Act with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., then called for increased high school graduation rates among Latinos. That’s a bigger problem than poorly drawn lines for electoral districts, he said, and promised to convene a group to come up with a four-year plan to increase graduation rates among minorities.

A former Seattle Port District commissioner, Bryant is a big proponent of plans – he also has a six-point plan to fight homelessness – and tries to paint Inslee as lacking in plans and “not engaged.”

Inslee has countered that he’s been doing, not planning, and some of the things Bryant talks about doing already are being done. The state is making progress on education, jobs and transportation, he said.

He’s quick to mention the extra money for education added during his tenure, $5.5 billion total from early-childhood education to college, with $2.2 billion of that for programs and policies required by laws the Supreme Court said in its McCleary ruling the state was shirking.

Fights over how to improve schools, and how to pay for it, have marked the legislative sessions of Inslee’s term, and only one year in four did lawmakers finish their work without the need for at least one extra session. The state has reduced class sizes for the youngest students, instituted all-day kindergarten across the state, given teachers and other school employees modest salary increases, and improved development programs for new teachers.

Both Inslee and Bryant say they want to move beyond the yearly slog of meeting court mandates in the ruling. Both want to expand technical training opportunities, improve graduation rates and address the “opportunity gap” – shorthand for the difference between what’s available to students in high-income districts and those in low-income districts.

“We’ve got to use McCleary as a spark plug for educational innovation and increase educational opportunity rather than a judicial flagellation of the Legislature,” Inslee said in a recent interview.

Said Bryant, “We should not get so fixated on how much we’re spending.” But he does want to increase the share of the state’s budget that goes to K-12 public schools, from about 48 percent to about 50 percent, by dedicating any growth in revenue to education until that goal is met.

Inslee’s campaign has countered that Bryant’s education plan is not much more than talking points, with the hard details still to be filled in.

Like most Republicans trying to knock off a Democratic incumbent in Washington, Bryant has warned that Inslee will raise taxes – perhaps agree to a state income tax – to pay for his education plans. Inslee said it’s too early to say how much money the state will add to the education budget or where the money will come from, but has repeatedly said he does not support a state income tax.

Not enough, countered Bryant, because Inslee won’t pledge to veto a state income tax if the Legislature sends him one. That’s a questionable hypothetical, because even when Democrats held majorities close to two-thirds of both chambers earlier in the decade, supporters couldn’t do more than talk about such an income tax. Under most circumstances, such a tax would require a constitutional amendment.

A robust economy might provide the extra revenue to improve education, Inslee said. If not, he’d likely try to close some tax exemptions for business, an option that governors and Legislatures have tried in recent years with mixed success.

The candidates disagree on just how robust Washington’s economy is, pointing to different sets of statistics to prove their point. Bryant cites the state unemployment rate, which last week was listed at 5.6 percent – 42nd-worst in the nation.

The state average also masks the much higher unemployment rate in Eastern Washington and many counties outside the Everett to Tacoma corridor, he said.

Inslee prefers to talk about the number of jobs created in Washington while he’s been in office, up about 250,000 since January 2013. Unemployment in Eastern Washington has historically been higher than in the Puget Sound region, in good times and bad, because of the cyclical nature of resource-based industries like farming and forestry, he said.

But the state has worked hard to bring new businesses to the east side of the Cascades, including carbon fiber and solar panel production in Moses Lake and a new silicon smelter to Pend Oreille County. The new Washington State University medical school in Spokane also will be “a huge economic driver for the region,” Inslee said.

Approving the authority for that medical school split the Legislature not along partisan lines, but between supporters of WSU and of the University of Washington. “It was not a slam dunk,” Inslee said.

By signing the bill for the new medical school in 2015, Inslee delivered one of the biggest items on the Spokane business community’s wish list. By signing off this year on the Spokane Tribe’s proposal for a new casino, hotel and shopping project on the West Plains, he gave the green light to something the local business community had been trying to stop for several years.

Bryant has criticized the decision to let the tribe go ahead with its casino plans, siding with Greater Spokane Incorporated that further development near Fairchild Air Force Base may not be in the long-term interests of a key regional employer if Congress decides to close more military installations.

But Inslee said he studied the environmental impact statement for the project, in which the Air Force said any impacts from the project could be mitigated by steps the tribe agreed to take, and talked with top Pentagon officials before making his decision.

He believes the project likely will give the community an economic boost and is convinced “beyond a shadow of a doubt” it won’t jeopardize the base. Two weeks after his decision, the Air Force put Fairchild on the short list for the next base to receive the new air-refueling tanker, he noted.

“I have gone to the nth degree to assure that Fairchild will be protected and there are still whispers out there … without any evidence whatsoever,” he said. “The proof is kind of in the pudding.”

The candidates also clash over transportation, particularly in Western Washington where rapid growth is clogging the highways and Seattle routinely makes the list of U.S. cities with the worst traffic. On that side of the state, the Bryant campaign is taking shots at Inslee with a commercial featuring their candidate stuck so long in traffic that a pizza could be delivered to his car.

The state Department of Transportation – which is run by a gubernatorial appointee – should make reducing traffic congestion its top priority for spending and focus on freight routes to move cargo to shipping centers. Bryant said he would eliminate one of the toll lanes on a controversial toll system in suburban King and Pierce counties.

“We don’t need more megaprojects,” he said, adding the state should focus instead on smaller projects where traffic is clogging up because that spot is no longer adequate for the load.

Inslee lists as one of his key accomplishments a $16 billion spending plan for more bridges and highways, including the money to finish the North Spokane Corridor, as well as money for mass transit and ferries.

The transportation package, which included an 11.9-cent increase in the gasoline tax as well as some other boosts in fees, passed in July 2015. Bryant said it shouldn’t have taken so long and blamed a lack of leadership by Inslee for the delay.

“It happened because I was committed to it,” Inslee countered, adding Senate Republicans fought the package for two years. Inslee and House Democrats did have plans as early as 2013, but Republicans who controlled the Senate had internal disagreements about spending for some major projects; they were also nearly united against the governor’s carbon reduction package. By mid-2015, the project list had reached a general agreement, and Inslee’s decision to drop the carbon provisions sealed the deal.

His inability to persuade the Legislature to address carbon pollution is one of the biggest disappointments of his term, he said.

Inslee touts his efforts to make state government run more efficiently through a process borrowed from business known as lean management. Bryant would like to place a moratorium on all new regulations at the start of 2017 and eventually have the state engage in zero-based budgeting, a process in which every department or program would start with no money and justify everything it spends. Although he initially suggested this could be done in three or four years, he recently said it could take as long as six years, which would mean it would be halfway through a second Bryant administration.

In the meantime, he said, the state should put together a budget by “stepping back and asking ourselves if we’re doing the right things.”

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