Status quo not good enough for higher ed

Everyone’s state budget is going to focus on K-12 education funding this year, because the governor and legislators campaigned on promises to meet the constitutional mandate, and because the state Supreme Court has demanded it. That’s understandable, but a solitary focus on K-12, without addressing both early and higher education needs, is not in the state’s best interest.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget invests $1.2 billion in new funding over the next two years in public education, including $35 million to expand the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. Inslee’s plan satisfies the high court mandate for K-12 and adds punch to pre-kindergarten programs proven to close the achievement gap.

It falls short, however, in addressing the equally pressing needs of the state’s two- and four-year institutions.

The governor’s higher education budget assumes carry-forward maintenance level funding – uncontrollable cost increases for utilities and other inflationary expenses – and allows for a small annual tuition increase of 5 percent. That would be the lowest tuition increase since 2001.

The Inslee budget’s tuition increase improves slightly on the final budget from former Gov. Christine Gregoire, but arrives at essentially the same place: status quo funding.

Both of those plans are still superior to a proposal from the Republican-controlled Senate that would reduce per-student funding. A University of Washington analysis shows the plan floated by Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, would cut per-student funding to a level nearly $1,000 less than the state provided 20 years ago.

That’s not good enough for a state that already ranks next to last in public support for higher education institutions. Only Florida ranks worse than our state, and by just $2 per student.

According to a report released last week by a group of business executives, called the Washington Roundtable, the state has a critical need to fill 25,000 jobs, mostly in health care and computer science. The Roundtable report says boosting the number of state graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to fill 160,000 jobs by 2017 would generate $720 million in state tax revenues and another $80 million for local governments.

But due to a lack of funding, the University of Washington turns away 75 percent of applicants to its computer science program and 50 percent of those who apply to its engineering program.

It doesn’t make sense. The business community wants to beef up STEM programs, the Republicans want to cut higher education and the governor is funneling nearly all-new revenue to K-12 schools.

If the state wants to get serious about job creation, the Legislature will have to find more dollars for higher education somewhere. It should reconsider the proposal from the Council of Presidents, who promised to freeze tuition for two years if the state pumped an additional $225 million into colleges and universities.

Perhaps the much-anticipated dueling budgets from the House and Senate can solve this conundrum taking some of the new revenue Inslee proposes to generate from closing tax loopholes and spreading it to our two- and four-year institutions. Allocating $1.0 billion to K-12 and $200 million to higher education seems like a better balance of priorities.

Meeting the high court’s K-12 mandate and fulfilling campaign promises are important, but not at the exclusion of the job creation potential of investments in higher education. Progress on both fronts would be best.