Reducing state education funds now will be costly later

February 4, 2011 

Reviewing recent news regarding flagging state education ratings, increasing global economic competition and rising budgetary deficits, it is reasonable to be concerned about our ability to maintain or improve our competitiveness in the international marketplace.

Concern is reasonable because any one of these issues, if not properly dealt with, could seriously erode our competitiveness. However, I believe that, given a focus on long-range goals, hard work and courage, Washington state can maintain and improve its international competitiveness.

To measure Washington’s level of international competitiveness, and how it might be improved, I compare its performance against several metrics. Specifically, I looked at a) completion of four- year science and mathematics degrees; b) state and federal education funding; c) state and federal funding of research and development (R&D), and d) educational barriers to foreign students and faculty. The comparisons then pointed to possible solutions Washington might employ to improve its position.

Completion of four-year science and mathematics degrees is one measure of international competitiveness. Currently, Washington is doing a passable job. Dual enrollment programs, which make college course work available to high school students, are available in 83 percent of schools, and four-year college degree completions are up 4 percent. However, 48 percent of students entering college still require remedial class work and the state ranks 38th in graduating students within four years of beginning a degree program.

To remain competitive, Washington should further improve its ability to prepare K-12 students for college through programs like the State Board of Education’s new Graduation Requirements, which better align high school graduation requirements with college entrance requirements.

The level of state and federal funding of higher education is another useful indicator of competitiveness. Lowering state and federal funding affects competitiveness by increasing public university costs, decreasing student aid, and influencing tuition costs.

To its credit, Washington state has passed legislation requiring simple majority votes for passage of school levies, which should help schools get needed funding. However, Washington state has reduced funding of higher education by 20 percent and continues to lag behind the national average in per pupil spending.

To improve its competitiveness, the state should continue to seek ways to meet or exceed the public funding needs of K-12 and post secondary institutions. This will be difficult to do given the current budget deficits. It will require leadership, long-term focus and careful planning from our state legislators to avoid further cuts.

Funding of research and development in higher education is yet another measure of international competitiveness. Adequate and sustained funding of research and development is vitally important to innovation and the development of new ideas. Without public funding, the traditional source, public institutions must rely on fund- raising and private donors.

While public institutions have improved their ability to gather funds through these alternate sources, they are not able to match the losses in public funding. This is, therefore, an area that Washington, which ranks 31st of 50 states, simply must adequately fund. To remain competitive the state should identify funding sources to fully fund research and development.

Lastly, barriers to participation by foreign students and faculty in Washington state higher education are another indicator of international competitiveness. Fewer barriers to, and greater involvement by, foreign students and faculty helps Washington by attracting the best and brightest from around the world, improving diversity and exposing our students to other modes of thought.

Many of the preceding recommendations will be tough to consider. However, adequate funding of education is vital to our continued competitiveness. To reduce educational and research funding too far now will cost us dearly in the future.

Kevin Deleon, a employee of the State of Washington and of the Washington Army National Guard, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. He can be reached at KreggieD@aol.com.

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