Editorial: State would prosper best with K-16 school plan

House Republicans in Olympia have an interesting plan for financing basic K-12 education which, as the state constitution notes, is the state’s “paramount duty.” The idea behind “Education First” is to devise a budget that fulfills that obligation, and then funds everything else with the remainder.

However, the details are highly important, because “basic” does not specify educators’ pay and class sizes, which can swing a budget pretty dramatically. Voters – via ballot initiatives – have shown interest in increased spending on those items, only to have the Legislature ignore them due to revenue constraints.

Then, of course, there is the battle over what programs would be slashed to make K-12 funding whole. Would this mean another round of devastating cuts for higher education? The state is already approaching long-term damage on that front because it isn’t constitutionally protected.

It’s this dichotomy between financing K-12 schooling versus any other educational spending that is a legitimate cause of concern.

There was a time when educators on all levels talked of constructing a K-16 system to reflect the growing importance of a college education to students, employers and the state’s economic health. One of the benefits would be greater coordination between high school and college standards to curb extra spending on remedial course work.

But tough budgetary circumstances and the legal challenges to the state’s financing of K-12 education have reintroduced the wedge between K-12 and college funding, with the latter coming out a significant loser.

Washington State University President Elson Floyd noted in a recent Seattle Times op-ed that the state covered, on average, 84 percent of a student’s college costs in 1987. It would drop to 35 percent under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget. That dramatic 25-year turnaround is the chief reason tuition has skyrocketed.

As a result, access to a college education narrows, and student debt mounts. It’s a double whammy that diminishes young people’s prospects for enjoying the same standard of living as their parents.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said his administration might start punishing universities that continue to enact large tuition hikes, but this is misguided. State legislatures control college costs.

Meanwhile, Washington state’s universities are reporting worrisome “brain drains,” as some of their most talented faculty members leave or consider leaving because of the state’s lack of support.

This is a serious matter and one we fear would get swept aside with an “Education First” approach that doesn’t include colleges and universities. It looks as if this bill has no chance in this session, but the discussion ought to continue.

We recommend bringing higher education to the table next time.