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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

School cuts can backfire

J.A. Bricker Special to The Spokesman-Review

As leaders in the business and labor communities in our state, we are concerned about the level of cuts to higher education being contemplated by the Legislature. Another round of deep cuts to our state’s higher education system will have long-lasting negative impacts on our economy and the people of Washington state. Certainly the state is in the midst of a fiscal crisis. We realize that higher education will sustain further cuts, as will all state-funded programs and services. However, given the level of cuts to our state colleges and universities over the last two years, further cuts of the magnitude being discussed will cripple the system and jeopardize opportunities for our citizens who need education and training beyond high school.

Access and affordability for students coming out of K-12 and for adults who need retraining for employment must be maintained.  Otherwise, those citizens will require a greater share of social service funding, now and in the future.

 Conversely, according to a recent report, $50 million is saved in Washington each year due to improved health and lower crime, welfare and unemployment rates among community and technical college students and graduates. 

Our state’s 34 community and technical colleges currently serve the equivalent of 163,000 full-time students – 20,000 more than are funded by the state.  This equates to almost 350,000 full- and part-time students working on two-year academic degrees in preparation for transfer to universities, adults who have lost jobs and are being trained to re-enter the work force, and students acquiring the basic skills needed to engage in college-level work or entry-level jobs.  

This enrollment level is an all-time record and has coincided with the deepest budget cuts to higher education – ever. The result is a per-student state funding level that is almost $1,000 less than it was three years ago.  Our colleges have responded by doing much more with much less.  At the same time, the level of educational attainment has gone up 26 percent over the last two years.

Additional deep cuts will not only greatly increase wait lists but will also close the door on tens of thousands of students.  The cuts being discussed in Olympia could mean an additional $200 million taken out of our system.  That would result in up to 38,000 students being turned away from our community and technical colleges this fall.

States with highly educated citizens and well-trained work forces will be the first to emerge from the recession and will lead the nation in innovation and job creation as the economy improves.  Our citizens deserve the opportunity for the education and training that will allow them to be the innovators and to fill the jobs created as our state recovers.

In Washington, a shortage of skilled workers is forecast through 2017 in health care, accounting, information technology and aerospace manufacturing – precisely the programs our colleges offer through worker retraining.  Enrollments in these programs increased 70 percent last year due to overwhelming demand for skills training from laid-off workers. 

Higher education will share the burden with other vital functions of government as the Legislature struggles to balance the state budget.  But we urge legislators to consider the return on investment in community and technical colleges as they grapple to rebuild the state’s fiscal foundation. 

We also implore the Legislature to allow the community and technical college system and local colleges the flexibility they need to manage the cuts that are coming. Our colleges have long been lauded for their responsiveness to the needs of their local communities.  

Allow us to do what we do best: prepare students for the next steps in college and career and manage our resources in the most fair and equitable way possible for students and communities across the state. 

J. A. Bricker is director of governmental affairs for PEMCO Financial Services, and Jeff Johnson is president of the Washington State Labor Council. Bricker is chairman and Johnson is a member of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
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