Business support for education: Just big talk?

Washington state business groups' positions run strongly in favor of better education. But to move Olympia forward, it will take more than good intentions and wishes for schools' success.
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Washington state business groups' positions run strongly in favor of better education. But to move Olympia forward, it will take more than good intentions and wishes for schools' success.

Washington businesses have spoken a great deal about education, which turns out to be the big question facing the next Legislature and the new governor, Jay Inslee.

Indeed, both in recent months and even before this year's McCleary decision from the state Supreme Court forced the issue front and center for next year, business groups have been remarkably outspoken about the importance of education for the state's economy.

Surveying the Internet for the positions of business groups and major companies here, it's common to find statements about the need for a good education for all students. Here, for instance, is what the Washington Alliance for a Competitive Economy has to say:

The most important thing our state can do to ensure a better future for Washington is provide a quality education for all students. Recognizing that 70 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020, Washington must move toward a K-12 system designed to improve college and career readiness for all students. This system should be based on the idea that all children deserve high quality teachers and schools driven by standards that adequately prepare them for college and work.

That kind of view has also been heard from the outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire, as well as from Inslee and his well-matched opponent, Rob McKenna.

But there's a difference between what Inslee and McKenna had to say about financing and what the sitting governor has learned from her eight years of experience. Late in the campaign, at an Oct. 25 news conference, Gregoire again counseled the two candidates that an improving economy alone will not meet the state Supreme Court’s ruling in the McCleary case that basic education must be amply funded.

She might easily have included the state’s business community in her admonishment.

A survey conducted by the author suggests that our leading businesses and their supporting organizations have been virtually silent on how the Legislature should answer the court’s mandate in the McCleary case that “regular and dependable” tax sources be found to fully fund basic K-12 education. A few have even suggested the court got it wrong. But all want the state to embrace, and fund, educational enhancements that support the high-tech industry.

Funding of education, both K-12 and higher education, is likely to dominate the Legislature’s agenda when it convenes Jan. 14. An interim work group, the Joint Task Force on Education Funding, has identified more than $3.4 billion in new basic education enhancements to be phased in over the next three state budgets over the coming six years (Washington enacts two-year or biennial budgets). The money would go to class-size reductions, student transportation, books and other operating costs, and full-day kindergarten. Additional enhancements are under consideration.

The task force has been directed to develop a “reliable and dependable” funding mechanism. It has been given the latitude to recommend several options, but it must recommend a preferred option. One option can be based on no new revenues; however, the task force then must identify cuts to other programs that will produce the needed funds. The task force will grapple with the issues at its next meeting on Tuesday.

Gregoire believes the next Legislature must make a start on K-12 funding in the 2013 session. She will soon send her final budget proposal to legislators, which she indicates will include a down payment of at least $1 billion and also address a shortfall of $1 billion or so for other programs. And she indicated in her Oct. 25 remarks that her proposal will include new taxes to fill the gap; that's something Inslee reiterated last week that he believes is unnecessary.

Business has a large stake in an excellent public education system, which it often articulates by suggesting a direct linkage between quality education and a vibrant economy. It strongly promotes STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. And the business community also advocates for favorable business tax treatment, including tax breaks.

A plethora of associations speak for business on education and other state policy matters and their positions are available for public review. They often join in coalitions to promote the need for public policies favorable to business.

The following review is based on a search conducted last month through policy statements posted on websites and in op-eds which looked for specific mention of the McCleary decision and education funding. (Note: There may be other organizations and also education funding activity that is not posted and easily found. If so, please comment below.)

The Association of Washington Business: The venerable AWB is Washington’s is the state’s largest business association with more than 7,900 members representing 700,000 employees. Its membership includes major employers like Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser, as well as many medium-size and small firms. The AWB considers itself the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturing and technology association. Its stated mission is to “advance an economic climate that enables our members, employees, and all citizens to prosper.”

The AWB annually holds a policy summit. This year’s summit focused on national issues: the future of aerospace; health care reform; trade; debt; and new jobs. It has an education and training committee, but no positions on McCleary and education funding could be found. It also publishes a quarterly magazine. The most recent issue carried an article by Chris Korsmo, CEO, League of Education Voters, opposing I-1185, the Eyman measure to re-impose the supermajority voting requirement, which the AWB had earlier endorsed. (Voters just passed the Eyman measure resoundingly.)

Washington Roundtable: Founded in 1983, the Roundtable is comprised of senior executives from major private sector employers throughout the state who work to “create positive change on critical policy issues that foster economic growth, generate jobs and improve quality of life for Washingtonians”. Its education committee “engages on issues relevant to improving K-12 and higher education in Washington and ensuring every student is prepared for work, college and life.” And it supports two education initiatives, the Partnership for Learning and Excellent Schools Now.

The Partnership “communicates about Washington’s school improvement efforts and the need to better prepare… high school graduates for the demands of today’s global society.” Excellent Schools is a coalition of education, business and community-based organizations “working to achieve meaningful education reform that increases student achievement, closes the achievement gap and prepares students to be college and career-ready”. It is promoting a K-12 education reform effort called A+ Washington.

The Roundtable’s education policy agenda includes a commitment to standards, accountability and innovation in K-12 education, increased baccalaureate degree production, and support for research at our universities. No references to the McCleary decision were found in the Roundtable’s website or those of its partnering organizations.

Washington Research Council: The Council supports the state’s businesses with public policy analysis. It focuses on issues of importance to state and local government, and provides the results of its analysis to government leaders, the media, and the public. Education is an issue area that the Council covers, and it has published policy briefs on both K-12 and higher education funding. One addresses the McCleary decision’s funding mandate, but it doesn’t indicate how full funding will be accomplished, except to say that money would be saved if I-728, which was passed to reduce class sizes, were repealed. But enhancements now on the table for funding will also reduce class size as would I-728.

The Washington Policy Center: The WPC bills itself as “an independent, non-profit, non-partisan think tank that promotes sound public policy based on free-market solutions”. Its board members include several business principals who are well-known players in the public policy and political arenas, such as Kemper Freeman, Jr. and George R. Nethercutt, Jr. The WPC has a center for education that has issued policy statements on the McCleary decision and an education reform plan.

The WPC is the only business-oriented organization that has plunged headfirst into the funding debate. Its Education Center director Liv Finne has written in a Seattle Times op-ed that McCleary is not a mandate for more funding. Finne’s, and the WPC’s, beef is that the Supreme Court exceeded its authority by retaining jurisdiction, and it erred in endorsing a “flawed” education-reform law. It overstepped its authority by getting into the “micromanagement” of education. The reform plan is flawed because, according to their argument, it will require funding that will not increase student achievement. Although the WPC’s education reform plan doesn’t mention McCleary, it advocates that teacher pay should be doubled to compete for the best college grads. It says that this can be accomplished while not spending more — by eliminating low-priority programs and administration.

Washington Alliance for a Competitive Economy: WashACE is a coalition of the Washington Roundtable, Association of Washington Business, the Washington Research Council and Enterprise Washington (a group working to "help elect business-savvy Republican and Democratic legislators"). WashACE promotes economic opportunity in the state. It annually produces the “Competitiveness Redbook,” which provides data on how Washington’s business climate compares to other states and where it ranks in terms of business costs. It endorses quality education, in particular improved STEM programs.

The next three organizations work in concert and have a platform that addresses the relationship of education to innovation.

Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association advocates for advancing the life sciences in Washington State on behalf of small to large life science companies and research institutions. The Technology Alliance is a statewide group comprised of leaders from Washington's technology-based businesses and research institutions who are united by a vision of a vibrant state innovation economy. Washington Technology Industry Association represents 800 member companies with 100,000 tech workers statewide, and is affiliated with similar trade associations across North America. One of its policy priorities is to improve STEM education beginning in the K-12 system, including the offering of differential pay to attract qualified teachers.

Washington STEM: Launched in March 2011 with support from the business, education, and philanthropic communities, Washington STEM works to advance “a shared vision of excellence, equity, and innovation in STEM education” through investments supported by technical assistance and evaluation. At a July 2012 conference, leaders from major businesses, labor, and education committed to support K-12 STEM education with financial investments from industry to expand student enrollment in post-secondary STEM degrees.

Then, among other businesses, there is Microsoft:  The past several months have been a heady time for the state’s second largest employer. In addition to product introductions, it has been very active on the education front from the international to the state level. It announced “YouthSpark,” a realignment of its philanthropic programs, that will invest $500 million to close the “opportunity gap” young people experience in the US and globally. It will include software for students and classroom tools for teachers.

The company also plunged into the debate over the nation’s skilled worker shortage with a proposal to link foreign worker visa applications in STEM fields with improved STEM education of US citizens. Companies would pay for each visa with the proceeds invested in additional qualified STEM K-12 teachers and expanding computer science classes from the current small number to all of the nation’s high schools.

Microsoft also recently weighed in with a list of suggested improvements to Washington’s education system. In a blog post entitled “Creating an Education System for the 21st Century,” Jane Broom, Microsoft’s Director of Community Affairs, laid out a set of policy initiatives for K-12 through higher education. The post is part of a new monthly series from Microsoft called “The View from Washington State,” which “will provide insight and commentary on topics and trends of importance to technology, education, corporate citizenship and public policy in Washington State."

Broom specifies requirements the state must address if it is to have an education system for the 21st Century. For K-12, the state must adopt and implement modern science and other core standards, and increase the graduation credit requirements so that students are ready for careers and college. And Broom thinks the state should intervene in persistently low-performing schools, provide more options for innovation, provide computer science classes for all interested students, and devise a plan to increase graduation rates.

The blog ends with: “Microsoft urges Washington’s educational and elected leaders to commit themselves to creating an educational system for the 21st Century. In doing so, Washington can serve as a model for the rest of the nation.”

But here’s the rub: it’s easy for Microsoft, other businesses, and business groups to enunciate laudable goals but harder to say what the costs will be and how they will be funded. That’s what this survey indicates.

There is an education/skilled-jobs gap. But there is also a gap called “ample funding” that the state’s business leaders need to help fill.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Nelson

Dick Nelson is a former Washington State legislator. He currently contributes to the public debate on state and local fiscal issues through research and commentary. As when he was in the legislature, he prefers the Democratic Party.