Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Action doesn’t match words on education

Reprinted from the Everett Herald:

“Education is the single most important investment we can make for our children, our state, our economy and our future.”

That’s Gov. Chris Gregoire introducing the final report of Washington Learns in November 2006. Included in its recommendations were a cap on annual tuition increases of no more than 7 percent, as well as a commitment for increased state funding for higher education to bring us up to par with other states.

Just this month Gregoire declared, “I will not walk away from our longstanding commitment to K-12 or higher education. Education is the lifeblood of this state’s economy.” She is honoring this commitment by reversing course. I guess her statement is factually accurate, because when you propose to cut state investment in four year colleges and community colleges by more than 20 percent, you are not walking away, you are sprinting away from investment in education.

As long as the governor continues to box herself in with knee-jerk condemnation of any sort of new taxes, her education pledge will remain just that — words, not deeds. Her campaign stressed education and health care, not the defense of an obsolete and unfair tax system. But while education and health care have fallen to the sidelines, our governor continues her “no taxes” mantra. Who suffers the consequences of this Republican type of behavior? The middle class families and their children who have already been scrambling to make tuition at our state universities, colleges and community colleges.

Over the past three decades, state funding for instructional costs at the University of Washington has fallen from 75 percent to less than half. Tuition in constant dollars has risen from $2,100 in 1981 to close to $9,000 in 2008. UW graduates now accumulate an average of more than $16,000 in debt while in school.

The governor’s solution to this accelerating cost shift for education to middle class families? Pile it on. She wants to increase tuition by 14 percent this year, and then another 14 percent in the next year. That’s 30 percent in two years, while wages are stagnating and middle class jobs are being shed and shipped to China and Japan. If your family income is $75,000 (that’s typical for Snohomish County), you won’t get any tuition aid from the state. So if you want to avoid more debt, and you have two kids at the University of Washington, you will be paying more than a quarter of your pre-tax income for just tuition (not books, room and board) a year and half from now. I thought Democrats were supposed to be creating opportunity, not closing it off!

We’ve gone backwards since the governor herself was a student at the University of Washington. Then, her annual tuition was the equivalent of less than $2,000 in today’s dollars. In the 1960s and ’70s we built the community college system, added a new four-year college, and ensured that the state funded this growing tier of education. But after 30 years of disinvestment in public services, Washington’s per capita funding for higher education has fallen below North Dakota, Alaska, California, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Idaho. Adding fuel to the fire, the financial meltdown has wiped out what many families invested in college savings accounts. The result — our higher education system is even further out of reach for middle class students.

John Warner, the former senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Boeing, puts our dilemma bluntly: “Without adequate financial assistance to offset significantly higher tuition, middle and low income families will discover another generation will not receive the education that will turn their lives around. The resulting higher welfare needs, increased criminal justice costs, increased public costs for health care, etc., will prolong our public fiscal crisis. The fundamental source of a vibrant economy and quality of life is education. W en are we going to “get it”?”

We could get it now, if we had the leadership to take on our tax system, overhaul it so that middle class families are taxed less and millionaires begin to pay their fair share. Until we do that, the windows of opportunity that higher education provides will be slammed shut, while the governor and the Legislature proclaim their allegiance to education and then cut resources for our public universities, colleges and community colleges.

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