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Originally published Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 6:59 PM

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Gubernatorial candidates Inslee, McKenna differ on education plans

Hot-button topics such as charter schools and tying teacher pay to student performance are emerging as differences between Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee, candidates for governor.

The Associated Press

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Both of Washington state's leading gubernatorial candidates say schools should find innovative new ways to teach. But they disagree sharply on how to make this happen, illustrating a key disagreement among voters.

Republican Rob McKenna supports introducing charter schools as a way to bring fresh thinking to education and give parents more choice. The privately run, publicly funded schools have been embraced by nearly every other state.

"Arriving late to the use of charter schools gives us one advantage," McKenna said. "We can just choose the best ones and implement them in a way that is optimal based on the experience of other states."

Democrat Jay Inslee, however, thinks education overhaul should happen within the state's existing school system. He says he's concerned about whether charter schools are accountable to taxpayers.

"I don't want to cede to the idea that charter schools is the only reform idea we should be talking about," Inslee said.

A citizen initiative on charter schools could be on the ballot this fall if a coalition of education groups gathers enough signatures. The measure would ask voters whether to allow 40 charter schools in Washington state over the next five years. It would mark the fourth vote on the issue.

Voters and education organizations are starting to line up behind each candidate. Hot-button topics such as charter schools and tying teacher pay to student performance highlight key divides.

The education establishment, including the state's teachers union, backs former Congressman Inslee, who doesn't think so-called performance pay would improve education.

Inslee said he would be willing to pay teachers more for taking on mentoring roles, but he doesn't believe performance pay makes a difference.

"There are many things that sound charming but don't work, and this is one of them," Inslee said.

McKenna, backed by a key education-reform group, favors merit pay — and not only for teachers. "I think the compensation of all public employees should be connected to performance, not just seat time," he said.

Both candidates say they want to find more money for education through improving government efficiency and spending post-recession dollars. Lawmakers say about $1 billion will be needed in the near future for education.

Neither candidate has endorsed new taxes for schools, nor has either gotten very specific about where to find more money.

In addition to devoting larger shares of revenue growth to education and shrinking state government, McKenna likes a complex idea being promoted by state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, that would shift some property taxes away from local education levies toward a statewide tax. Inslee hasn't weighed in on this proposal.

Funding has become a key issue since the Washington Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state does not adequately pay for basic education.

There are many other education topics on which the candidates seem to agree including: improving graduation rates; emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math; giving teachers the support they need; and the importance of early learning.

Supporters say their endorsements are based as much on the candidate's leadership styles as on their stands on the issues.

"McKenna just comes to the conversation with an incredible amount of clarity about how to strategically leverage the position of governor to lead and see through the policy changes that he wants to make for schools," said Shannon Campion, executive director of Stand for Children, an education-reform advocacy group.

At the state's largest teachers union, Inslee is getting just as enthusiastic support.

"There's not a question in my mind that Jay will be better for our students," said Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist.

McKenna "subscribes to a lot of the reform du jour," Lindquist said. "There's no way I can say that he would help our kids at all."

AP correspondent Rachel La Corte and reporter Mike Baker contributed to this story.

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