Opinion

Educating for economic growth

State lawmakers too often succumb to the "tyranny of the urgent" at the expense of planning for the future needs of our citizens. It is critical that we pause to notice the bigger picture, and plan to survive it.

Our population is getting older and living longer - an idea I find more appealing each year - but do we really understand what this means? The fact that the 65 and older group will be the voting majority in just 10 years has huge ramifications. Total health care costs will escalate dramatically - at a time when our economic base is threatened.

While the debate rages over public vs. private health care - and I think this is an important debate - a more pressing question is: What percent of the state's total wealth can we afford to spend on health care? Legislators and citizens alike know there is a point at which the costs will first cut into our wish list, and eventually overwhelm our ability to pay essential services.

Taxing people more is neither a reasonable nor adequate plan. Having more people paying taxes might be. We are going to need more people working, and at higher paying jobs, to support the future needs of our population. This means expanding our economy, but the trends are disturbing:

* 19 percent of all industry executives will retire in the next five years

* Jobs requiring science, engineering and technical training will increase 51 percent between 1998 and 2008

* Washington graduates, both high-school and college, don't have the skills to fill this demand

* The percent of the work force with college degrees is declining

* Washington continues to have one of the most highly-taxed and over-regulated business climates in the West

* While personal income increased 41 percent between 1980 and 2000, it is projected to decline 2 percent between 2000 and 2020

Spending more money on the same education system won't change this alarming outlook, which is why everyone is focused on education reform. Our survival depends on helping the next generation to excel, which is what we want for our children anyway. To do that, some things must change.

More than half of the 10th graders that need to pass the WASL to graduate from high school in 2008 can't pass the test. At Bellevue Community College, 67 percent of the freshmen are taking at least one remedial class. We can't afford this kind of inefficient, ineffective approach.

Every high school in this state must have a remediation program for 10th graders who fail the WASL. Young people need an academic foundation that includes work readiness skills, basic math and language skills, and course work that prepares them for the next step in their education - be it at a vocational school, a community college or a research university. The work force of our future needs more than a high-school diploma.

Education leaders are struggling to meet these challenges, but they have their own problems. Fifty percent of public-school teachers will leave teaching in the next five years. Nationwide, more than 260,000 new math and science teachers are needed by the fall of 2008-2009.

Our higher education system does not produce enough graduates in the high-demand fields like teaching, technology, nursing, pharmacology and engineering. Those of us with kids in college also know that we can't afford to pay tuition for the five to six years it usually takes to get a bachelor's degree. Our colleges and universities must increase capacity in the high demand programs. Credits should transfer easily between institutions, and courses must be scheduled so that students can obtain their bachelor's degree in four years.

This coming session, I will be focusing on the policy changes and investments needed to educate a work force and build a sustainable economy in Washington. As always, that means setting priorities and spending carefully. It also means correcting last year's misdeeds.

The Better Schools Initiative, I-728, was designed to ramp up education funding over time, which is why voters dedicated a growing revenue source, the state property tax, for the new money required each year. Last year a new tax on cigarettes, a declining revenue source, was put in place to cover I-728 and the property tax revenue was diverted to the general fund. This breaks faith with the voters and puts our ability to fund education reform at risk.

The legislative budget-writers also skipped the scheduled payment toward the unfunded liability in the state pension systems, pushing the problem into future biennia - the equivalent to waiting until you are 60 to start saving for retirement. Without the benefit of years of compounding interest, the state will be facing enormous demands when those pensions must be fully-funded. It is a dangerously short-sighted approach.

Finally, the budget-writers went home last spring with a miniscule ending-fund balance. The good news is that the latest revenue forecast is $1 billion better than expected, primarily due to a hot home construction market. However, considering the impact of Katrina on timber prices and China's consumption of energy, the projected new revenue for 2006 may be a temporary windfall - so we must be prudent.

In January, lawmakers will have a second chance to write a budget with our future in mind. This means putting our schools first, keeping current on pension funding, building up our reserve and limiting new spending to that which is needed to keep up with inflation and increased caseloads.

Sen. Pflug represents Maple Valley, Issaquah, North Bend, Fairwood and Sammamish. She is a member of the task force created to take an integrated approach to assessing the program and funding needs of early learning through higher education in Washington. She serves on the Senate Early Learning, K-12 and Higher Education Committee, the Senate Ways and Means Committee and as ranking Republican member of the Senate International Trade and Economic Development Committee. She also serves on the Lt. Governor's Joint Committee on Trade and Economic Development and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region Delegate Council.

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