By the editorial board of the Herald
Given the economic gloom that spread rapidly during the first months of the covid-19 pandemic in Washington State in early 2020 – businesses closed temporarily or permanently, workers were laid off or reduced hours and fears of significant state revenue losses – the state’s economy, labor market and tax revenue have proven remarkably resilient.
Part of that had to do with the overall health of the state’s economy before the pandemic hit; the state created some 412,000 new jobs from 2014 to 2019, employment growth that exceeded the national average, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
Even during most of the pandemic, from May 2020 to October 2021, the state was able to recover 344,000 of the 415,000 jobs initially lost. And it’s predicted, with the state’s projected 2.1% annual job growth, that the economy over the next five years will create an additional 373,000 jobs, the majority providing wages that can support families.
The catch, however, as determined by the Washington Roundtable — a public policy organization representing the state’s private sector employers — is that 70% of those 373,000 jobs coming in the next five years — and all of the following – will require more than a high level educational credential, such as a college diploma, post-secondary credential or apprenticeship.
Currently, the roundtable found that, for the Class of 2019, only 43% of its high school graduates are on track to earn such a degree by the age of 26. And that was the estimate before the pandemic. Since then, education at the K-12 and post-secondary level has taken a beating that further complicates this goal of an educated and trained workforce that can support the state’s economy and its families.
That’s where the other good news — the state’s recent parade of positive revenue forecasts — comes in.
Last week’s forecast from the State Revenue and Economic Forecasting Council predicted that despite the pandemic and inflation, the state’s economy is now expected to add an additional $1.45 billion in tax revenue to the top. above previous estimates that indicated the state could expect $5 billion more in revenue than when the 2021-23 budget was passed last year and assumed revenue of $61.7 billion. Adding to the coffers is about $1.3 billion in federal covid relief yet to be distributed and $7.5 billion in state reserves.
It’s not that the state lacks meritorious uses for that money, including lawmakers from both parties who have suggested returning some of it to taxpayers as the Legislature goes into detail next week of the supplementary budget. .
But others, primarily Democrats who overwhelmingly control the purse strings, have been more cautious about where that money goes, wary of making long-term commitments to programs and tax cuts, including Senator Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“I would advise my caucus to be careful,” Rolfes told Jerry Cornfield of the Herald.
Say that five times quickly; then codify it in the budget.
Yet it is recognized that much of this good fortune can and should be used to strengthen in the state what covid has weakened. Education at the K-12 and post-secondary levels is among the most deserving in this regard.
Although there was no choice – particularly when vaccines were unavailable in the first year of the pandemic – but to conduct classes remotely, the waste of time in classrooms classroom resulted in a loss of learning for the students. A recent national study, cited by the roundtable, estimates that covid disruptions to K-12 education resulted in an average of seven months of lost learning; the figure was higher for black students (10 months) and Latinx students (9 months) and over a year (12.4 months) for students from low-income families.
The state and school districts, as they should, have begun to address this issue by focusing on additional resources and opportunities to catch up with students. Some of those plans, however, have been foiled for individual school districts across the state where property tax levies have recently failed. Typically, these levies are used to fund programs above what the state considers “basic education,” including extra teacher’s aides, school nurses, and after-school and summer programs, etc. . In Snohomish County, of 13 school districts with severance measures in the Feb. 8 special ballot, five — Granite Falls, Marysville, Monroe, Stanwood-Camano and Sultan — failed to accept their severance requests.
Recognizing the need for additional educational opportunities to help get students back on track, state legislators should seek to provide additional support for programs—particularly for districts where levies have failed—that directly focus on education. student learning and physical and mental health.
At the post-secondary level, the problem is less a loss of learning than a loss of students themselves.
Between 2019 and 2021, the roundtable notes, community and technical colleges across the state enrolled 50,000 fewer students than before, a 23% drop in enrollment, a particularly high loss among students 30 or younger. . The state’s four-year colleges and universities also saw declines. The state’s four-year public universities saw a 7.5% decline in total enrollment during the same period and an 11.5% decline among freshmen. For students eligible for federal Pell Grants from low-income families, their enrollment has dropped by nearly 15% at four-year institutions.
There is a concerted effort on the part of these schools to increase awareness among prospective students. Community and technical colleges across the state pledged to increase enrollment by 9%; and the state’s four-year universities promised raises of 24 to 50 percent. But those commitments will require state financial support — demonstrated previously in programs like the Washington College Promise — and increased outreach to those eligible for financial aid.
To meet these needs, the Roundtable proposes financial and political commitments to:
Ensure students are prepared for post-secondary education and training by maintaining rigorous learning standards and graduation requirements;
Establish and expand learning opportunities related to career areas;
Direct funds to address learning loss by focusing efforts on students most affected by the pandemic; and
Address declines in post-secondary enrollment by expanding dual credit and dual-enrollment programs in high schools, increasing post-secondary student financial aid, and developing regional partnerships to build bridges in secondary schools for further education and training.
Washington State has been fortunate to see its jobs and economy rebound quickly, even in the face of a stubborn pandemic. But jobs and a strong economy cannot be left to chance. A significant investment in education – both at the K-12 level and at the post-secondary level – offers the best opportunity to retain this good fortune.