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Originally published Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 3:51 PM

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Leaders need a plan to pay for state's education priority

Voters were clear in the midterm election that funding education is a top priority in Washington state but additional taxes and heavy borrowing are not the way to do it.

VOTERS were clear in the midterm election that funding education is a top priority in Washington state but additional taxes and heavy borrowing are not the way to do it.

Voters repealed a new tax on bottled water, candy and soda. They rejected Referendum 52, a measure authorizing $505 million in state bonds to pay for energy-efficient improvements in schools. Improving school buildings is a worthy goal, but voters correctly walked away from a deal that would have blown past the state's debt limit.

And they said no on Initiative 1098, which would have imposed an income tax on high earners and dedicated some of the proceeds to education.

The exception to the rule was Seattle, where voters overwhelmingly approved a $48 million supplemental levy.

But the message statewide remains a clarion call for robust, consistent education funding by the state Legislature. It says so in the state constitution and voters do not want to be given that task.

Legislators will need a strategic plan around prioritizing and paying for education.

Efforts cannot occur in a vacuum. A sizable portion of the state's $4.5 billion funding gap is planned spending on education. That includes two voter-approved initiatives that pay for smaller class sizes and teacher cost-of-living increases as well as education reforms approved in the last legislative session.

Some education spending underscores certain values held by Washington's citizens. The biggest is levy equalization funding, money given to rural, less-well-off districts to make up for the enormous levies approved by more-well-off districts in Seattle and much of King County.

Educational excellence across the state is the goal.

Tight state budgets should make federal funding more appealing. The money comes attached to a workable reform agenda that includes many things this state wants to do anyway — for example, raising the level of academic rigor and emphasizing college readiness.

Much of what lawmakers can do in the future will be driven by the state's budget outlook, which is dismal. But voters have pointed the direction they want lawmakers to look and it leads back to Olympia.

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