Our Voice: Community college funding is as crucial as K-12

The community college system is a bastion of second chances, providing people a way to improve their lives.

Whether it is adults needing classes for basic education or a new career, or high school students wanting a less expensive start to their four-year degree, the community college is the place that offers hope for all these ambitions.

But it takes state funding to keep the mission going.

This year that money will be tighter than usual, as legislators contend with the demands made by the state Supreme Court McCleary decision, which will force millions more to be spent on K-12 programs. Legislators already have said they don’t know how they will get the additional money.

So it is possible these budget constraints will pit K-12 funding requirements against the needs of higher education.

What a shame. The two go hand-in-hand and crippling one to pay for the other makes no sense. We hope that despite the challenge, legislators recognize the important role community colleges play in the state economy and find a way to fully fund their operation over the next biennium.

The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges is asking for an additional $182 million for 2015-17. A large chunk of that increase is an additional $51 million to cover basic education for adults. According to the board, Washington’s fastest growing demographic traditionally also has the lowest level of education. The state needs an educated citizenry, so teaching people to read, write and manage basic math is crucial. The uneducated have few options and usually end up costing the state more in social services.

But giving people an education gives them a chance to build independence and a future for themselves, which ultimately benefits the state economy.

Rich Cummins, president of Columbia Basin College, said community colleges want to be “on the same side of the table” as K-12. When high school students struggle, they can turn to CBC to finish up their diplomas. CBC also offers the Running Start program, which gives high school students a chance to earn high school and college credit at the same time, making it less expensive in the long-run for them to get a four-year degree. And when adults want to create a new career path for themselves, they can start at CBC and make it happen.

It does not make sense to focus on K-12 education and then leave students with nowhere else to go.

Community colleges provide a crucial step in helping people change their lives. Funding K-12 education may be a constitutional requirement, but funding the other ends of the educational spectrum is just as critical.

We hope the Legislature understands this.