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STEM education vital for our future

Parents get it. Businesses get it. Colleges, universities and K-12 schools get it.

We all get that our children’s and grandchildren’s success will depend on skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Now it’s time for the Washington Legislature to get it, as well, by supporting a pair of bills that would greatly enhance STEM education before legislators come home from the special session that began May 13.

In our nation’s most prosperous cities, STEM disciplines are fueling economic success and creating greater-than-ever demand for knowledgeable employees.

Spokane is no different. We have a STEM-fueled economy, with robust growth in health care, aerospace, clean technology, manufacturing, energy technology and health, life and biomedical sciences. Our medical school alone will need 9,000 workers over the next 30 years.

In fact, STEM jobs in Spokane County are expected to grow at twice the rate of non-STEM jobs, and workers trained in those fields already enjoy significantly lower unemployment rates. They make more money, too, earning an average of $73,523 a year, compared to $39,648 for workers in non-STEM fields.

That’s why Spokane leaders in education, government and industry have introduced innovative new STEM curricula in public and private schools, launched or expanded several creative and successful after-school and stand-alone initiatives like our fantastic new Mobius Science Center, and developed STEM internships and learning opportunities in businesses throughout the community.

Great new schools like Spokane Valley Tech (a collaborative effort between four school districts and the business community) are giving students an opportunity to explore fields in science and technology and preparing some of them to enter the workplace right out of high school. There are schools offering similar opportunities for students in Spokane Public Schools, Mead, Coeur d’Alene and other districts.

In its characteristically collaborative style, Spokane is setting the standard in the state. Representatives from 30 organizations, including schools, businesses and government agencies, formed a network called Spokane STEM more than a year ago.

With assistance from Washington STEM, the local group is working toward bold, aggressive changes in the region’s education system, economic structures and community attitudes. State, local and regional networks are sharing ideasand best practices and coordinating initiatives.

Spokane STEM strongly supports promising bipartisan legislation in Olympia that would advance STEM education and provide more help for the regional networks. At the request of Gov. Jay Inslee, lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced Senate Bill 5755 and House Bill 1872 to spur greater coordination, innovation and accountability across the state.

Key Republicans and Democrats have put their names behind these ambitious bills. SB 5755 was introduced by Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. A former Renton School Board member, Democratic Rep. Marcie Maxwell, introduced HB 1872; she’s a member of the House Education Committee.

Yet, while the bills have passed in their respective chambers, they are currently stalled. During this special session, we call on lawmakers to deliver on their commitment to prioritizing STEM education.

This is a hometown priority for Spokane. Let’s make passing these bills and supporting STEM a go-home issue for the 2013 Legislature.

Tom Johnson, president/CEO of STCU, is chairman of Greater Spokane Incorporated’s K-12 Roundtable and the former vice president for business affairs at Whitworth University.


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