Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee unveiled an education plan that calls for reducing K-3 class sizes, boosts innovation schools and provides all-day kindergarten, among other things.

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee proposed an expanded fleet of specialty “innovation schools” and prioritizing early learning in an education plan he rolled out on Thursday

Inslee’s plan was more fiscally restrained than that of his Republican opponent, Rob McKenna, who has proposed a multibillion-dollar, longterm re-orientation of the state budget toward public education.

Inslee, at a news conference at Renton’s Talbot Hill Elementary, emphasized that his plan was “realistic based on today’s economic conditions.”

Should tax revenues rebound, Inslee said, money should first go to reduce class sizes for kindergarten through third grade. He also proposed competitive grants to seed niche programs aimed at everything from art to aviation.

“The status quo is not good enough,” said Inslee. “Too many of our kids don’t make it to the starting line in the race to a middle-class job.”

On hot-button education topics, Inslee, who has been closely aligned with the state teachers union, endorsed a new teacher-evaluation system approved by lawmakers this year that “should end the practice of passing low-performing teachers from school to school.”

The system, which adds student-performance data to a list of factors that principals use to evaluate teachers, was opposed by the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state’s largest teachers union.

Inslee, the son of a high-school teacher, also said he doesn’t support charter schools, which the union also opposes.

WEA provided an early endorsement for Inslee’s campaign in December and state union President Mary Lindquist attended the news conference on Thursday.

Education is historically a centerpiece of gubernatorial races, but a recent state Supreme Court opinion and McKenna’s focus on the issue likely will raise its profile even higher. In January, the court said the state was failing its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.

McKenna, kicking off his campaign in June, proposed boosting K-12 and higher-education funding from 50 percent to about two-thirds of the state general-fund budget over as much as a decade. He said he would pay for that multibillion-dollar shift by reining in other state spending and directing new revenues from economic growth to education.

Unlike McKenna, “I have not made promises of money in millions and millions of dollars that would just come in from thin air,” Inslee said Thursday. He did say, though, that the way to boost education spending was through job creation.

In a statement, McKenna said Inslee was too closely aligned with the WEA to be a credible reformer.

“I appreciate that Mr. Inslee has copied several ideas from my own work and speeches on education from the past few months. However, copying isn’t allowed in school, and the voters of Washington state deserve better in their next governor,” McKenna said in a statement.

Asked at Thursday’s news conference about his ties to the union, Inslee emphasized his votes in Congress against the Iraq war and against deregulation of Wall Street.

“I am not a stranger to hard decisions that may not be consistent with all of my friends,” he said.

Lisa Macfarlane, co-founder of the League of Education Voters, said Inslee had shifted away from the teachers union by supporting the new teacher-evaluation system.

“He’s moved pretty significantly on some issues. It doesn’t look like it was written by the WEA,” she said of Inslee’s education plan.

For its part, the WEA issued a statement that said Inslee’s plan “shows he respects and listens to the voice of educators.”

Rather than charter schools, which McKenna supports, Inslee said he’d expand district-run “innovation schools” such as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) school in Vancouver, Aviation High in Des Moines and Tacoma’s School of the Arts.

The most expensive part of Inslee’s proposal is likely to be all-day kindergarten, estimated by his campaign to cost about $150 million a year. Inslee said additional funding would come from closing “corporate tax loopholes” and reducing increases in health-care costs.

Inslee said his plan also would:

• Better prepare children for kindergarten with home visits to at-risk families. Inslee noted that every $1 spent in early learning saves $17 in long-term child welfare and public-health costs, among other things.

• Close the achievement gap between white and minority students in part by recruiting more minority teachers. He aims to reach a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 with expanded “corps of dropout coaches” and counselors at high-needs school districts.

• Leverage Washington’s high-tech expertise via public-private partnerships and brainstorming meetings with business leaders.

At the news conference, Inslee dodged a question about the $770,000 cost of a special election for his replacement in Congress. Inslee resigned from his 1st Congressional District seat in March to concentrate on his run for governor.

“The number I’m focused on is 288,000. That’s the number of people out of work” in Washington state, he said.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.