January 10, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 38

Legislature should stop gutting higher education

In Our Opinion

In a Dec. 31 Associated Press article, Eastern Washington University President Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo said he hoped higher education didn’t turn into the state Legislature’s “rainy-day fund” for solving budget problems.

Amen.

Unfortunately Arévalo also said he is “pessimistic” about the Legislative session beginning Jan. 14 and its abilities to solve these problems. We share that pessimism.

This state has big budget challenges in the coming 2013-15 biennium. The Office of Financial Management predicted a $1 billion deficit back in August, a prediction that doesn’t take into account likely pressure for state employee salary increases and last year’s McCleary decision by the Supreme Court that Washington is not fulfilling its constitutionally mandated duty to fully fund basic education.

In her December 2012 farewell newsletter to constituents, 3rd District state Sen. Lisa Brown noted that the Joint Task Force on Education Funding – of which she was a member – calculates the amount needed to meet McCleary requirements at $1.6 billion. It’s money the state will have to find or run afoul of the court.

Brown also states, “For the long-term economic vitality of our state, it is very important that the Legislature does not simply fund K-12 schooling at the expense of higher education.”

Also amen, but so far, things haven’t been promising. According to the Higher Education Coordinating Board’s publication “Key Facts about Higher Education In Washington,” of the three largest areas of appropriations receiving money from the general fund, human services, public schools and higher education, only the latter has seen a consistent nosedive in funding, 25.5 percent, since the 2007-09 biennium. In fact, while all other areas of the 2011-13 general fund budget initially received increases – later reduced somewhat in the 2012 supplemental – higher education got hit with additional cuts of 46 percent from 2009-11 levels for research and comprehensive universities (UW, WSU, CWU, EWU, WWU and The Evergreen State College) and 26 percent for community and technical colleges.

State funding of higher education has been steadily declining for over a decade. In 2000, per-student, full time equivalent state support was $7,033 for universities such as Eastern.

In 2013, it’s at $3,732.

To make up the difference the Legislature gave universities the authority to control their own tuition rates. The result has changed the higher education funding balance from state to student.

In the 2007-09 budget, Eastern had a FTE balance of 33 percent student, 67 percent state. In 2011-13, it’s flipped: 61 percent student and 39 percent state, and Eastern is one of the lowest.

One might think Washington is getting out of the higher education business.

And yet a higher education degree is often the reason trumpeted for more funding for our K-12 schools. In a sense we’re pushing our students to graduate and go to college – and into debt. Seventy percent of student financial aid comes from the federal government, and 69 percent of that is in loans.

This can’t continue, but given recent statements by politicians, one wonders how it will change. Both governor-elect Jay Inslee and his opponent Rob McKenna proposed fixing education, including higher education, without raising taxes and many politicians in both parties have joined this chorus.

Higher education student activists have some proposals, such as redirecting money from the capital gains tax or tax exemptions on research and development. Arévalo suggested a tuition freeze, but then noted this would be counterproductive to what he believes Washington citizens want – places to go to college to achieve education qualifying them for high level jobs businesses say they will need for the future.

We would like to see the Legislature pledge to take no more money from higher education, at least as a start, and maybe put some back.

And maybe it’s time we rethink the role of government in public education. When the state’s constitution was passed, basic education was an eighth-grade education.

That’s changed over time and over 124 years later, maybe it’s time to change again.

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