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McKenna visits Kent; emphasizes reform of state education system

State Attorney General Rob McKenna speaks Friday, March 16 at a business luncheon at the ShoWare Center in Kent. McKenna is a Republican candidate for governor. STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter - STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter
State Attorney General Rob McKenna speaks Friday, March 16 at a business luncheon at the ShoWare Center in Kent. McKenna is a Republican candidate for governor. STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter
— image credit: STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter

Rob McKenna made it loud and clear during a speech Friday in Kent that education would be a much higher state priority if he is elected governor.

McKenna, the state attorney general and a Republican candidate for governor to replace the outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire, said the state needs to give more financial support to higher education and K-12 education.

"We've got to get busy reforming that system," McKenna said during a luncheon at the ShoWare Center presented by Pacific Printing Industries in partnership with the Kent Chamber of Commerce and Carlson Advisors. "We need to dedicate more of the state budget to education. Twenty-five years ago two-thirds of the state budget was for education, preschool to graduate school. Today, it's half. That's hurting our higher education system.

"We don't have the resources for K-12 that we need. We don't fund all-day kindergarten. We don't fund preschool for 10,000 to 20,000 low-income kids who can't get into head start even though they qualify for it."

McKenna, of Bellevue, said when the economy improves and state revenue picks up, more funds need to go to education. He also promised to cut costs in other departments to open up more funds for education.

Business owners tell McKenna they have trouble finding the skilled workers needed to fill jobs.

"That's because our public education system is failing us and so is our higher education system because we've seen 20 years of systematic reductions in state support for higher education," McKenna said.

He noted the University of Washington and Washington State University alone have lost 50 percent of their state support in the last three years.

"That's one of the reasons tuition's gone through the roof," McKenna said. "It's one of the reasons students have a hard time gaining access to colleges they want, like the University of Washington and have a hard time getting the courses they want once they get there."

McKenna, 49, won his first race for attorney general in 2004 and was re-elected in 2008 with 59.5 percent of the vote. Polls show McKenna in a tight race with Democratic candidate Jay Inslee to be elected the new governor in November.

McKenna is trying to become the first Republican governor to win an election since John Spellman in 1980.

Despite his Republican ties, McKenna pointed to President Obama's Race to the Top education program as a positive.

"We need to innovate and reform the way other states are," McKenna said. "We need to look at states that did well in President Obama's Race to the Top and emulate them. Because in Obama's Race to the Top, which I thought was a very smart program, we came in near the bottom."

A former King County Councilman, McKenna has studied the facts that show how poorly the state educates many of its children.

"If you look at a class of ninth graders, it's even more startling and concerning," McKenna said. "According to a study frequently cited by the League of Education Voters in our state, if you look at 100 ninth graders in our state only 18 will go on to complete a college degree or diploma at either a community college or university within six years of starting college."

The state has failed to produce the workforce needed, the attorney general said.

"There isn't a kid out there who shouldn't be going to at least technical college or community college if not a four-year college or university," McKenna said. "Manufacturers need people with skills sets who can read and operate complex equipment and machinery."

McKenna also voiced his support to allow charter schools in the state. Charter schools in other states offer students an alternative to the public school system. Charter schools are public schools funded by government dollars. They vary from traditional public schools because they are granted “charters” and are exempt from many of the federal, state, and local laws regulating traditional public schools.

"The idea that we should categorically prohibit even a single charter school from existing in the state is backward," he said. "There are only a handful of states now that ban charter schools, we're one of them."

A Kent-Meridian High School educator at the luncheon questioned McKenna about the need for charter schools if public schools are performing well. McKenna agreed charter schools may not be needed in every district.

"I live in Bellevue, Bellevue Public Schools may not adopt a single public charter school," McKenna said. "Does that mean I think I should deny that option to every single school child in the state? Absolutely not. It ought to be one of the options that is available based on a local decision or the state saying you have a failing school or failing school district and we need to create an option in that district."

In summary, McKenna said major change is needed in the state's education system.

"Our K-12 system isn't getting us where we need to go," he said. "We have one of the higher dropout rates in the nation; we're in the bottom third of on-time graduation. A third of all third graders cannot read at grade level. If you look at low-income children, it's over half who cannot read at grade level in third grade."

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