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The tooth fairy arrives to rescue public education

Must be campaign season. We have politicians promising quality learning and lower taxes.

Red Square at Western Washington University

Red Square at Western Washington University WWU

Last week we saw a picture of what higher education in this state will become if we keep moving in the direction we are now pursuing. Although the week contained some good news, overall it was a gloomy assessment of what is happening to public higher education here and across the United States.

The good news came first: on Monday Boeing and Microsoft teamed up to pledge $50 million for up to 10,000 undergraduate scholarships of $1,000 apiece as part of a state program to help students in high-demand fields such as engineering and computer science. On Tuesday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna announced the outlines of his campaign, including a pledge to work for big increases in funds for higher education (and K-12), but without any tax increase and perhaps even a tax cut for small businesses. His plan was immediately challenged for vagueness and lack of a funding source for dramatically increased state spending.

By week's end, all of the state's colleges and universities had either increased tuition or were planning to do so, from 11 to 20 percent.

This is a picture of a state that wants good education paid for by someone else, and politicians who promise both quality learning and lower taxes. 

Gratitude is surely appropriate for the nice scholarships, which will make it easier for Boeing and Microsoft to hire Washington grads to work alongside the foreign nationals who are increasingly taking technology-rich jobs that our young people are not qualified to fill. Thank you, thank you. 

Perhaps Boeing and Microsoft executives (and stockholders who live in this state) feel in a generous mood because they escaped in 2010 from a 5 percent income tax on high-income earners, thanks to Washington voters who had been led to fear that the tax would morph down to lower incomes. The same voters also turned down applying the sales tax to soda pop, bottled water, and candy. Together those two measures would have topped the $50 million gift from Boeing and Microsoft and also made it possible to fund a decent level of education in schools from kindergarten to grad school.

But we have come to believe in the tooth fairy (in this case, Rob McKenna) who tells us that we can have quality education and not pay for it. There will be big private donors, but of course their gifts will carry strings. There are few large corporations interested in paying to educate social workers, grade-school teachers, and wildlife biologists. 

This is a worrisome trend for a public that gives at least lip service to the idea of public education affordable to those who need it to pursue dreams that may not involve engineering, medical science, or computers. It is an unfortunate trend that pushes all of our so-called public college and universities to carry the begging bowl to the rich and powerful, who will always have priorities to be satisfied. 

We have met the enemy, as Pogo said, and he is us.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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