The paramount duty of the next governor

Washington's schools face urgent challenges. The question is: How do the state's aspirant leaders intend to address them?

As the gubernatorial race heats up and the Education Trust Fund initiative heads for the ballot, voters deserve some frank talk. Backers of the Education Trust Fund initiative get credit for taking the pressing issues head-on. They put a price tag on improvement of public education from preschool through higher education. The $1 billion annual estimate and proposed revenue source — a 1-penny sales-tax increase — induces sticker shock even among some supporters. Democrat Ron Sims' up-front support for the initiative is politically risky — and refreshing. At least his position is well defined.

Frontrunners Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and Republican Dino Rossi both oppose the initiative's sales-tax increase. The position is understandable given the fragile economy.

But Gregoire and Rossi owe voters more specifics: How much will it cost to educate the state's growing and increasingly diverse student population to higher standards, and where will the state get the money?

The time for feel-good sound bites about improving public education is over. Everyone is for better schools.

Gregoire has issued a compelling 11-page education plan that shares many of the goals of the initiative. Yet, there is no mention of cost. Gregoire says she would focus on improving the economy and look for increased revenue by examining business-tax exemptions and spending. She acknowledges that is not likely to be enough.

So far, Rossi is short on specifics about education. He pledges to amend the state constitution to guarantee annual school-funding increases to keep pace with inflation. That would just maintain the status quo. Rossi says a healthier economy, not a tax increase, is the best way to produce more revenue for schools. But the economy will sour again one day. Then what?

Students deserve a stable source of funding not perennially subject to economic turn and political whim.

There are 100,000 more students in the state's K-12 system than a decade ago. A growing number are learning English and about one-third of them are poor. Too many are not succeeding.

Providing a solid education for every student is the next governor's paramount duty.