Democrat Jay Inslee speaking at the WTIA candidate forum Tuesday

Taxes. Health Care. Jobs. Regulatory reforms.

Those were some of the topics on the agenda Tuesday morning as Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee spoke at the Washington Technology Industry Association Gubernatorial Candidate Forum, chatting about a wide-range of issues that relate to the state’s burgeoning technology community. But it was another topic that ruled the day: Education.

It wasn’t a debate per se. Each candidate provided a 15-minute stump speech, followed by 15 minutes of audience Q&A. At no time during the event did McKenna and Inslee actually meet in front of the podium at the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine.

Nonetheless, the discussion provided an inside look at how each of the politicians would govern a state blessed with some of the strongest innovative thinkers and businesses, but burdened by what some believe is a broken educational system.

Inslee, the former U.S. Congressman from Washington’s 1st district, bluntly pointed out some of the harsh realities. The state ranks first per capita in high tech jobs, but ranks 46th in the production of kids in the state who have the skills to do those jobs.

“I am not going to be a governor essentially importing everyone else’s children to feed a high tech economy,” said Inslee. “I intend to close that gap, and I have a plan to do so.”

McKenna focused his remarks on the “unacceptable” unemployment rate, saying it is the number one issue facing the state today. A key aspect of that issue, in his opinion, is an educated workforce.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna

“Every employer needs access to an educated, trained workforce. We have to focus on the human capital needs of companies, and certainly that means technology companies,” said McKenna, the state’s Attorney General. He referenced a recent visit to Zillow in which the fast-growing online real estate company explained the need for highly-skilled computer scientists.

“In this market in particular, it is really challenging because that smaller company is competing with some of the bigger companies, like Microsoft and Amazon and now Facebook and Google have moved into our area to compete for that same talent,” said McKenna. “And yet when you look at the University of Washington and you consider that they are turning away over 80 percent of their computer science program applicants, you realize that we are not even beginning to meet that need.”

Inslee’s so-called “educational reform plan” — which he discussed in brief detail — includes new methods to evaluate teachers; increased mentorship for teachers; investments in early childhood education; and better leadership in schools. McKenna echoed many of those remarks, noting that principals at state schools needs to be given more authority.

“Instead of being required to take whatever teachers are sent their way, whether they work out somewhere else or not, they need to build the staffs that their kids need,” McKenna said.

Inslee offered similar remarks.

“Here’s what I’ve learned going around the state of Washington,” he said. “I am seeing some tremendous things going in our schools, but it is happening when we have bold, dynamic leadership in the buildings.”

Both candidates also stressed investments in early childhood education.

“You want to reduce the high school drop out rate, invest in three-year-olds,” said McKenna, who also suggested all-day Kindergarten; extending the school year and more STEM training for older students.

In terms of higher education, Inslee said it is “inexcusable” to have 600 engineering students waiting to get into classes at the University of Washington. McKenna described the higher education funding picture as “even more grim” than it has been for K-12.

“The UW and WSU have lost half of their funding in the state budget in the last three years,” McKenna said, adding that tuition has nearly doubled at the state schools in the past five years in order to offset the cuts. “We need to address that as well, and that means reversing the downward trend and that means capping non-education spending and allowing the excess to go to education in order to bring up their share. It also means greater efficiency in spending … and squeezing overhead and administrative costs as we have done in my office…. It means freeing up resources in order to go into these higher priorities.”

Jay Inslee makes a point at the WTIA candidate forum Tuesday

Inslee played to the tech audience, noting in his remarks that he “lives, eats and breathes innovation.” Referencing a number of companies in the clean tech and aerospace arenas, Inslee said he has helped to grow those segments of the economy over the years during his tenure in Congress. He added that the “fundamental genius of our state” is intellectual creativity.

“We don’t have a lot of oil, or a lot of coal in this state,” said Inslee. “But what we have is a talent base above our shoulders, not below our feet. And I am excited about every opportunity we have to work with business people to grow this innovative economy.”

The race for governor in Washington state remains tight. A poll earlier this month of 524 likely voters found that 48 percent plan to vote for Inslee and 45 percent plan to vote for McKenna.  Seven percent percent are undecided.

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  • Susan Sigl

    Thanks John for the good coverage this morning. It’s important to the future of WA’s economy and quality of life that the issues which threaten our ability to remain a leading innovation region are top of mind for our legislators. The WTIA hosted a 3 day conference here last week for TECNA (Technology Councils of North America) that drew 50 tech trade associations from across the continent. Other regions that are making big inroads into attracting talent and tech companies are those in which the public and private sectors are aligned around solving or preventing many of the issues our gubernatorial candidates discussed this morning. With a new governor and many new legislators, 2013 will provide an opportunity for the tech sector to come together as a community to promote tech and business friendly policy that ultimately benefits everyone.

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