Ask two out of three Oregon Senate District 19 candidates what the most important issue in that district is and the answer is not surprising - education.
At least that's what incumbent Oregon state Sen. Richard Devlin, 54, D-Tualatin, and challenger David Newell, 30, R-West Linn, said during a recent interview. Libertarian candidate Marc Del-phine, 29, Tigard, was invited, but did not attend the interview.
One of the main differences be-tween Newell and Devlin is that Devlin has the inside track - he has spent the last 10 years in the Oregon Legislature focusing on education issues. Prior to that Devlin served six years on the Metro council, four years on the Tualatin City Council and two years on the Tualatin Parks Advisory Committee.
For Newell, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, it is his first run at political office. In his seven years since moving to Oregon he has been a volunteer in a church youth group and served as the president of the MIT Club of Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Devlin says priorities in the district, which encompasses Lake Oswego, West Linn and portions of Southwest Portland and Tualatin, vary somewhat from town to town - in Tualatin it's traffic, in West Linn growth and in Lake Oswego 'largely education' - but overall, education wins out.
'I think the most critical issue, if you talk to the public, is education - education at all levels,' Devlin said. 'Although the emphasis in some communities tends to be more on K-12, there is some general concern about funding for education on all levels. Education is simply on the forefront.'
Devlin says what he brings to the table is a long history of wrangling with those issues in Salem.
'I don't think you'll find an incumbent legislative candidate anywhere that is given more credit for knowing more about education funding, the situation in education, what the issues are, who the players are, what can be done and what is difficult to do in education, than I am,' Devlin said.
He says his city council experience, service on the Metro Council and involvement in many transportation-related advisory committees also give him a good background in local land-use and transportation issues.
Newell says what he can bring to the table are new ideas to address the education issue.
'I think our constituents are frustrated with the lack of priorities they see in the annual biennium sessions,' Newell said. 'Education is the last thing that gets funded, rather than the first thing.'
Newell, who works for a computer security company as an information technology auditor and legal consultant for computer forensic investigations, says he believes his background in auditing computer systems of large institutions and corporations will help him come up with solutions for funding the state's education system.
He said he would 'use those skills on the education system to come up with win-win solutions - things we can do to rebuild faith in the public education system, so that we can prove to voters that we have instituted the reforms necessary for them to be able to trust us with more money.'
Newell said some of his ideas are to maximize teachers' instructional days through flexible scheduling and using volunteers on dedicated testing days in high schools to free up teachers to interact more with the students.
Devlin said, while he agrees with some of Newell's ideas, they would require legislators to become a kind of a 'statewide school board - trying to make all decisions for the local government.'
In the Legislature there are discussions 'on both sides of the aisle' focusing not only on the high school level of education, but on every level, Devlin said. Those ideas include full funding for Head Start and more dollars to decrease class sizes in kindergarten and first grade. He said he would also like to see lower class sizes in second and third grades, but concedes, 'I don't think we'll be able to afford that.'
Devlin said another idea he supports is modifying the School Improvement Fund to allow districts the flexibility to decide, on the local level, what programs they will support with those improvement funds.
When it comes to the level of funding for education in the state, Devlin says there are a lot of numbers and percentages being debated in Salem. He said he has always pushed for the high end on education funding, but says with large projected increases in human services and public safety, there are some tough choices to make.
'I think we need to realize we can't do everything for everybody, and set some real priorities - and I think education should be at the top of the list,' Devlin said. 'But I don't mean to diminish the role of human services, nor deny that there aren't significant issues in public safety.'
Newell said there is a clear need to focus on education funding, but that the funding level shouldn't be limited to a percentage of the budget.
'As a society we need to make the commitment that there is a level of education that we're going to sponsor, and it doesn't matter how big the pie is,' Newell said. 'We need to educate our children to make sure they have their opportunities in life.'