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Editorial: Washington must focus on STEM education

A critical pipeline to Washington’s future economic success is far too narrow.

That’s the conclusion of “Opportunity For All,” a report on the booming science and technology job sectors that are shamefully neglected in a supposedly high-tech state. The just-released Boston Consulting Group analysis shows Washington could benefit much more if it could muster a focused, coordinated strategy.

The push for more educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly called STEM, is not new, but the report shows Washington needs stronger leadership and bigger tools.

Why STEM? Because it delivers the kind of high-paying jobs all states crave, and our competitors have upped their game. We are home to companies such as Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon, but we haven’t supplied the “cradle to career” educational support needed to fill employment needs.

As a result, in-state jobs that should be available to our children go to people from out of the area, or out of the country. BCG estimates that for every 100 Washington students who enroll in elementary school, only nine eventually land a STEM-related job. Employers need to double that number, or the amount Massachusetts already supplies.

Imagine Iowa’s leaders ignoring agriculture. That’s where Washington is with STEM.

The problem begins early, with only 65 percent of children ready to learn when they hit kindergarten. In Massachusetts, which has more early-learning opportunities, it’s 75 percent. By the time they reach high school graduation, only 40 percent of Washington students are “STEM-capable.” In Massachusetts, it’s 60 percent.

Seventy-five percent of STEM-capable students want to stay in Washington, but only half do so. Limited capacity at public universities forces them to pursue higher education elsewhere.

Recently, employers and educators, including Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger, signed a letter urging the Legislature to widen the computer science pipeline. There are 20,000 available jobs, the letter notes, but colleges and universities graduated only 1,200 students with computer science degrees last year. Furthermore, only 7 percent of high schools offer an Advanced Placement computer science class.

House Bill 1813 establishes a grant program – with a private-sector match requirement – to train teachers to run AP computer classes. It’s just one of many changes the state needs to support. The House passed the bill overwhelmingly, and it’s also popular in the Senate. But Sen. Steve Litzow, chairman of the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, held the bill because the House failed to adopt a measure that would restore the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver.

Hopefully, the impasse is resolved during budget negotiations. If HB 1813 remains blocked, it will show state leadership hasn’t got the will or the muscle to open the coveted-jobs spigot.

 

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