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Saving state universities requires a key ingredient

A scene from the University of Washington campus Credit: Allie Holzman/Flickr

The debate over the state’s education funding dilemma took a hopeful and perhaps decisive turn last week when the University of Washington Board of Regents weighed in on the need for revenue reform.

In passing the “Declaration of Concern for the Sustainability of Washington Public Higher Education,” the regents made it clear that nothing short of fundamental changes in the state’s financing system will suffice. According to their statement, this will require “reform of the state’s financial and revenue structures so as to provide a viable, dedicated stream of support for access to an affordable, quality public higher education for Washington’s residents.”

Note they didn’t say that more money for higher education should be found by cutting other state programs and services. Nor did they say that any and all growth in state revenue from economic recovery should be directed at higher education.

Thus they are out ahead of the leading candidates for governor, Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna, who have been reticent about suggesting that the state’s tax system is in need of reform. Both have called for finding revenue through efficiencies in other areas of state government. And both are clearly betting on the growth of tax revenue to provide increased funding for higher education.

The regents may have taken their cue from Gov. Chris Gregoire who has been emphatic that further cuts to social programs will not be possible and that there is a crucial need for new revenue. All of the current regents have been appointed or reappointed by Gregoire. And all, with the exception of the student body’s representative, have ties to major state businesses, including Alaska Airlines, Boeing, Microsoft, REI, and Starbucks.

They may have also followed the state Supreme Court’s lead in the McCleary decision when it called in January for the Legislature to amply fund basic education by means of “dependable and regular tax sources.”

In their declaration, the regents “call upon the civic and political leaders of this state, as well as the public at large, to work in common to shape the change that is necessary to protect and nurture the realization of a well-educated and capable American populace.”

Their “Plan of Action” indicates that they will advocate for the reform they seek.

One starting point would be to convince the state’s leading business organizations to change their tune on fiscal reform. To move beyond sloganeering to actual tax reform that provides needed revenue.

The Washington Roundtable, which represents the major state businesses in the public policy arena, has started a public information campaign focusing on “Benchmarks for a Better Washington." One of the benchmarks that it wants to improve upon is that Washington ranks 38th among the states in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita.

In newspaper advertising and other efforts, the Roundtable wants the public to know that “Washington can do better.” But nowhere does the Roundtable indicate how “better” — in this case, more access to postsecondary education — can be accomplished. It can’t happen without the funds to hire and pay adequate salaries to more professors and their teaching assistants.

Then there is the Association of Washington Business, which advertises itself as the state’s Chamber of Commerce. The AWB’s 2012 legislative agenda (Tax & Fiscal Policy) would preserve the supermajority vote requirement for increasing taxes (and closing loopholes) enacted by initiative to the voters and place it in the state constitution, making tax reform more difficult.

The regents might also want to have a heart-to-heart with The Seattle Times' editorial board. For months in editorials and large-type advertisements The Times has promoted the “Greater Good Campaign” focused on preserving higher education. Recently its ads have been patting the corporate sponsors of the campaign on the back for stepping up to “save higher education.”

In a May 11 editorial the paper used tortured logic in praising the Legislature for not cutting higher education again in the supplemental budget, even though that budget programmed another 16 percent increase for in-state undergraduate tuition in the fall. The editorial suggested that further “painful” tuition hikes should be avoided, but made no mention of a need for other revenue sources.

To its credit, The Times has described how high tuition is driving students and their families into deep debt. But it’s hard to miss the disconnect between these personal stories and the editorial writers’ hard line against any new taxes.

When the regents begin their advocacy work they might want to connect with the task force that the 2012 Legislature established to find a new revenue stream for basic K-12 education. That body will be supported by legislative budget staff and will have access to tax impact — tax equity — data. By working jointly, the regents and the task force could more effectively address the funding needs of public education from pre-school to graduate school.

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