Let’s talk about education.
I know, I know, it sometimes seems that is all we talk about in this state — even if we’re talking a failure to talk about it. The Legislature, after all, has spent the past six years attempting to meet its paramount duty of fully funding basic education, and the only thing that often drowns out that discussion is the cacophony from commentators and critics.
But as lawmakers attempt once again this year to bring some finality to the debate, it is notable that one entity just might be able to cut through the noise. That entity is the Washington Roundtable, a think tank of sorts made up of senior executives from many of the state’s most notable companies. While some — particularly teachers’ unions — are likely to suggest that the roundtable is merely adding to the noise, the roundtable has some ideas that are worth consideration; to paraphrase an old TV commercial, when Microsoft or Boeing or Starbucks speak, people listen.
Last year, the Washington Roundtable released a report from The Boston Consulting Group that included some ear-catching numbers. You know, things like Washington is expected to have 740,000 job openings over the next five years — a rate that is nearly three times the expected national average. Among those openings, 35 percent are expected to be “career jobs,” the kind that offer good salaries and a clear path for upward mobility. About 45 percent are expected to be “pathway jobs,” which provide a route to a career job, and 20 percent are expected to be entry-level positions.
As always, these numbers might or might not prove accurate; economics is a science, yet an imperfect one. But if you would rather not hold your breath waiting for Donald Trump to bring back coal-mining jobs, Washington is a pretty good place to be.
“Sounds great!” I can hear you saying. “What’s the catch?” Ah, good question. Because good jobs will require something on the part of those who desire to fill them. The estimate is that more than 90 percent of the people who fill career positions will have some sort of college education or professional credential. You won’t need that Ph.D. in women’s studies, but you just might need to be a licensed electrician.
“I think a lot of times, people look at the roundtable and think we’re those who believe everybody needs a four-year degree,” roundtable president Steve Mullin said during a recent meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board. “We’re working hard to dispel that myth.”
Because of that, leaders emphasize another finding of the study: Only 31 percent of high school students in the state go on to build professional credentials by the age of 26. In other words, Washington is not adequately preparing students for the jobs that are opening up. “We’re No. 2 (among states) in reliance upon imported talent,” Mullin said.
That is where the discussion about education comes in. For years, Washington, along with most other states, has based funding upon the professionals in a particular school building. And that creates inequities.
As The Seattle Times’ Claudia Rowe reported in an insightful article in January: “The Everett School District, for example, receives about $120 more from Olympia, per child, to teach English to nonnative students than Seattle Public Schools does, even though there is no particular difference in these students’ needs.”
The Washington Roundtable recommends funding based upon the actual students in a school and the number of those who require additional help by virtue of being English learners or being homeless or having conditions that hamper their ability to learn.
That, of course, is the simplistic explanation, but it is one that has been embraced by the Republican-controlled Senate in its budget proposal. And it is one that makes a lot of sense.
The hard part will be getting Democrats and teachers’ unions to listen. The current way of allocating school funding will not die quietly.