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Friday, February 13, 2009

Broadly available education and opportunity is fundamental to the future of our state. Education opens doors to better job opportunities, higher wages, and greater job security. Success in today’s competitive, knowledge-based economy will require more than a basic education. Our children need schools that provide sophisticated, high-quality learning environments so they can graduate with the skills and knowledge to succeed in the global marketplace.

Education begins early and continues throughout adulthood. The Budget & Policy Center has identified four research-based goals within this value area so we can begin to measure our progress towards creating a just and equitable state.

- Invest in Early Learning
- Provide a High-Quality Education to All Students
- Prepare All Adults for Meaningful Careers
- Cultivate Opportunities for Higher Education

The state has a constitutional mandate to provide a basic education to all students. Most of the funds in the 2007-09 budget that were allocated to Education and Opportunity went towards the goal of providing a high-quality education to all students. The state’s public universities received the next highest amount, followed by workforce training, and then early childhood education. (see graph)

Research continues to show the importance of early childhood education to student success in later grades. A study from the Washington Learns committee (which was co-chaired by Governor Gregoire) found less than half of kids entering kindergarten in the state are adequately prepared for school. Parents generally pay for preschool and child care, which can equal up to 30 percent of a median family income. State and federal programs are designed to assist lower income families with these costs, but in 2006 funding was insufficient in Washington and 42 percent of eligible families went without services.

A high quality K-12 education system depends on good teachers, well-run schools, and challenging course work. Washington has close to 2,000 National Board certified teachers, a credential which requires educators to show a mastery of their subject matter, work closely with parents, and stay abreast of professional theory. The state provides incentives for teachers to achieve the certification and even more if they choose to teach in an under-resourced school.

The state is also working to improve instruction in math and science. Last school year, only half of seventh graders passed the math section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) and in 2006, forty-five percent of students who went directly from a state high school to a community or technical college were required to take remedial math classes. In 2008, the State Board of Education approved a plan to increase the math and science requirements for high school graduation to address these concerns.

Completion of one year of post-high school education and a credential can lead to a significant boost in earnings. A recent survey of Washington businesses found that the highest vacancy rates were for jobs that required more than a high school diploma, but less than a baccalaureate degree. One barrier to continuing education for workers is financial limitations. In 2006-07, the state extended “Opportunity Grants” to 843 lower income workers, most of whom were parents. The program was a success – 73 percent of the grantees completed a full year of school and the program was expanded statewide.

Likewise, affordability can be a significant barrier to lower income students who are interested in higher education. In 2007, Washington enacted a new College Bound Scholarship that notifies students in 7th grade from lower income families that the state will pay the full cost of tuition at any public college or university in the state if they pledge to graduate from high school.

Recent state investments in high quality teachers and improving access to worker training programs have resulted in meaningful progress in education and opportunity in our state. We still face challenges in expanding access to early childhood education and ensuring our students are fully prepared to meet the workforce needs of the new economy. These are investments that will have a lasting impact on the future of our state. We cannot allow the fiscal crisis we now face to derail those efforts.

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