Senate candidate square off at forum at RTC

Hosted by RTC, the forum was themed “The education continuum – early learning, K-12 and higher education – and the vital role education plays in creating economic opportunity.”

There was a big focus on funding and on technical skills as state senate candidates from the fifth and 41st legislative districts participated in a forum at Renton Technical College Oct. 13 to talk about education.

Hosted by RTC, the forum was themed “The education continuum – early learning, K-12 and higher education – and the vital role education plays in creating economic opportunity.”

Fifth district Senator Mark Mullet (D) and his opponent, state Representative Chad Magendanz (R), were both in attendance as were 41st district Senator Steve Litzow (R) and his opponent, Lisa Wellman.

The candidates assembled on stage and were introduced by moderator Jene Jones before all four took turns answering questions prepared by the event’s partners, which included the RTC Associated Student Government, the American Federation of Teacher (AFT), the League of Education Voters, the Renton Chamber of Commerce, the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce and the Renton Reporter.

The event opened with a question from RTC citing statistics that project 740,000 jobs being created in Washington state over the next five years, including a large percentage that will require a two-year or technical degree and asking how the candidates would support community and technical colleges while in Olympia.

Magendanz cited bills he has worked on the past that included a study of apprentice programs, which he said provide good-paying jobs without a college degree, and a bill designed to increase computer science classes at high schools.

Litzow said the McCleary decision, in which the State Supreme Court ruled that the state must “fully fund” education across the state, has helped put a focus back on schools, but said the funding is still an “enormous issue” because finding money for K-12 can’t come at the expense of the rest of the system, such as community colleges. He said his goal was to build on the work they’d done and keep working to fund technical schools at a high level.

Wellman, a former teacher and former executive at Apple and HP, said she viewed tech education as “critical” and said she would work to change the image of technical education among students.

“We have to rebrand ‘shop,’” she said, but added that there will need to be additional revenue streams coming into the state.

Mullet said the legislature has “dropped the ball” in how they compensate community college teachers and said he would like to see more money come to the colleges so they could better pay adjunct (or part-time) professors, as well as fund more permanent positions.

The RTC student government asked about where funding for higher education ranked among their priorities, how they would elevate the state’s college system and when they could anticipate results.

Litzow fielded the question first and said it all comes back to the money and “fully funding” the K-12 system. Litzow said when you remove entitlements and K-12 from the state budget it leaves 10-12 percent to fund everything else, even as the profile and need for community colleges increases, though he said he’d like to see a “reset” on paying teachers to try to attract more people to the profession.

Wellman called funding community and technical schools a “social justice issue” and said because those schools can move quickly to change their curriculums to meet the needs of employers, she would immediately begin working to bring more money to a system she described as “underfunded.”

Mullet agreed the issue was “urgent” and said he would be working on it as soon as the next session and said he’d like to see a change for school capital bonds to a simple majority as a way to help build technology programs.

In his answer, Magendanz said he wanted to expand Running Start, a program that lets high school students gain college credits, which would use K-12 money to build capacity in tech schools. He also said community colleges should be allowed to send bonds to voters as way to raise additional money.

Though it was touched on earlier, the next question came from the AFT and dealt with the issue of using adjunct faculty instead of tenured teachers. The candidates were asked if they would support additional funding for full time faculty and improved working conditions.

Wellman again said that CTC was not well-funded and that we cannot perpetuate the same system and expect different results. She also said she would support increased funding to make more adjuncts permanent faculty.

Magendanz said his father was an adjunct professor and he believes them to be “core” to the culture at community colleges, adding that people with industry experience are one of the strengths of community colleges. That said, he said yes and yes, he would support more adjuncts becoming full time and improved conditions.

Litzow agreed, but said that community colleges run “countercyclical” to the economy, meaning that they need to re-tool in boom times to be prepared to retrain workers during a bust and because of that, there needs to be planning ahead.

The Newcastle Chamber brought McCleary back to the forum with a question about reducing class sizes up through third grade and addressing teacher salaries.

Mullet said he broke with his party on this issue and said most states do not run local levy votes over and over to fund schools and said he’d like to see the levies become permanent instead of having to re-up them every few years.

Magendanz, who was a plaintiff in the McCleary case as a member of the Issaquah School Board and a defendant as a legislator, said any new funding has to be stable and constitutional and said Mullet’s plan failed the second test because it would require a new amendment. As for stability of funding, he said the property tax is still the best way to do that and said he would not support an income tax. He also said the system has to be more equitable as richer districts must share with poorer ones.

Litzow agreed and said too many local districts are relying on levies to meet what he called the state’s obligation ,and said there would have to be a change in how schools are funded, adding that the state was probably going to have to “move around local and state levies.” Litzow said a new ratio on per-student funding was needed to ensure equity, but also said it would be difficult as it would mean dealing with increased taxes and with union contracts.

“If it was easy it would have been solved a long time ago,” he said.

Wellman said she had a plan on her website that laid out her “vision” for education funding and was adamant that new revenues would be necessary as Washington current ranks in the bottom 10 among the states for per-student spending.

“We need new money in the system,” she said, adding that Washington’s tax structure in the most regressive and “unfair” in the country. She also said it was important to make sure that local schools do not see a drop in funding due to any new formulas.

In their question, the Renton Chamber cited statistics showing that funding for tech education in high schools is down to less than $64 per student from a high of more than $500 in the 1960s, and asked how the candidates would ensure that all kids have access to hands-on opportunities.

Litzow agreed it was an issue, but said he did not have an answer and would have to study it further.

Wellman again spoke of the need to rebrand shop and find new revenues as well as find a way to make sure that equivalent credits can be given to make sure tech classes cover graduation requirements.

Mullet again said a simple majority for school bonds would allow districts to build more facilities.

Magendanz said he did not think there should be different tracks for academics and CTC education in high schools and that student should especially not make that decision as freshmen because kids learn with their hands and they should get both tracks.

The final question dealt with Common Core and asked the candidates if they supported the program.

Wellman said standards are important but it is “dangerous to be teaching to the test” so the state has to be careful about much testing they do. Instead, she said she would like to see a focus on “critical thinking skills.”

Mullet said he supports Common Core, but admits it has “difficulties,” particularly in the implementation at the district level. Mullet said he knows there have been a lot of changes and that new math programs, for example, are “freaking people out” but reminded the audience that Common Core was once “education reform.”

Magendanz agreed and said it seems that every evil is laid at the feet of Common Core, but the biggest issue was a misunderstanding of what the program actually is and also said many of the concerns come from the curriculum policies developed by the districts, not the state or federal governments.

Litzow called Common Core a “non issue” at the state level and also said the problem was implementation. He admitted the testing is “a little goofy” and that the state has to figure out how to help teachers more, but said “we need state standards.”

Ballots have begun to make their way to voters and are due back Nov. 8.

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