A free quarter of college classes could be the ticket out of poverty for hundreds of Spokane residents.
That’s the intent behind a state program being launched today in Spokane.
The Community Colleges of Spokane will begin handing out $160,000 in tuition waivers to people earning poverty-level wages.
In particular, the waivers are meant for welfare recipients who, at the state’s insistence, took the first job they found.
Now, free class time could be used to learn a job skill and rocket into a better-paying job, said Dan McConnon, coordinator of the state’s tuition waiver campaign.
“It’s a fundamental deal: You agreed to take this crummy job, and we’ll help you get a better one,” said McConnon.
The program is part of a $1 million statewide campaign created when the 1997 Legislature made work a requirement to receive public assistance.
Spokane’s allocation is the biggest in the state because local community colleges serve more welfare recipients than their peers statewide do.
The Seattle network of colleges, in comparison, received $98,000.
To be eligible, single welfare parents must work at least 20 hours a week, and two-parent families must work at least 35 hours a week.
Recipients of the waivers must continue working while taking classes. Child care will be provided, said Terry Covey, spokesman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Although designed for welfare recipients, anyone living at 175 percent of poverty - $1,944 a month for a family of three - can get a waiver.
There’s enough money to serve anyone who’s eligible, said Pam Praeger, program coordinator for the Spokane colleges.
The money must be spent by June, adding an air of urgency to the program. Thousands of fliers will be posted citywide today.
People accepting the waivers must present a plan on how a course will boost their earning power, said McConnon.
That puts the focus on vocational classes - such as instruction in Windows 95 - or technical courses like electrical repair.
It’s unlikely the waivers will pay for liberal arts classes, Praeger said. State officials don’t believe such classes lead directly to good-paying jobs.
The training program also could be a boon to businesses, Praeger said. “If a business contacts us, and asks for a particular skill training class, we could tailor a class for them,” Praeger said.
“I don’t see how anyone loses.”
College officials blamed Washington’s welfare reform for a 230-student drop in enrollment last fall, when the state ordered welfare recipients out of school and into job search classes.
Critics of the program questioned whether the state would follow through on promises to help welfare recipients climb into good-paying jobs.
Jean Colman, director of a state-wide group that lobbies for the rights of welfare recipients, applauds the classes, but wonders how a working poor parent will have time for everything.
“I think it’s a good step, but it’s insufficient,” said Colman, of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition. “Working, being a full-time parent, I have to figure out where I have the time to go back to school … My fear is that if it doesn’t work well for everyone, the parent will be blamed.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE PROGRAM The tuition waivers are part of a $1 million statewide campaign created when the Legislature made work a requirement to receive public assistance.