I-1351 vs. 2-year colleges — and much else

Initiative 1351, which passed narrowly this month, was a smart bomb aimed squarely at Washington’s higher education and social welfare systems.

The initiative ordered the Legislature to pump immense amounts of money into additional staff at the state’s public schools - $4.7 billion just through 2019. Yet it provided no revenues to do it, guaranteeing that the money would have to be diverted from other priorities. It even threatens to hamstring the Legislature’s efforts to comply with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary order to invest more in textbooks, busing and other educational basics.

Meanwhile, Washington continues to battle with Florida for last place in funding its universities, and with Arizona for first place in tuition increases.

Consider the potential impact of I-1351 on the state’s two-year college system.

Since the Great Recession, Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges have lost 23 percent of their funding, which was never abundant in the first place. Leaders of the system are asking the 2016 Legislature for some of that back: a 10 percent, $176 million increase in their operating budget. They’re also hoping for $367 million from the capital budgets to update buildings on their aging campuses.

The operating money, especially, could prove hard to come by. The 600-pound gorilla of I-1351 will be grabbing for every dollar in sight to hire more than 10,000 administrators, psychologists, advisors, office workers, custodians, assistants — plus some actual classroom teachers, about 7,400 of them.

Unless the Legislature musters the gumption to override the initiative, Washington’s colleges, early learning programs, child protective agencies, and other essential welfare and education services will be lucky to wind up with table scraps — assuming they don’t have previous servings scooped off their plates.

Like all other non-1351 programs, the community and technical colleges are likely to go hungry. Yet college labs and vocational training are hardly less important than high schools well stocked with vice-principals. Graduates of those high schools have to go somewhere once they get their diplomas; those who don’t move on to higher education are statistically far more likely to wind up unemployed, dependent on public assistance and entangled in crime.

Pierce County is particularly dependent on its two-year schools: Tacoma Community College, Pierce College, Clover Park Technical College and Bates Technical College.

Roughly 68 percent of the county’s adult population lacks either a two-year or four-year degree. Compare that to the state’s 58 percent and King County’s 46 percent. IQs do not fall as you cross the county line: The disparity reflects family income levels and lack of opportunity.

Among their other purposes, two-year colleges provide an essential backstop to the K-12 system. They offer students who did poorly in high school a second chance to pick up fundamental writing, reading and vocational skills. They allow students who earned diplomas but still aren’t at college level to make up the difference. They educate older adults as well as 18- and 19-year-olds.

Most of the colleges’ request for $176 million in operating money would help prepare shaky or out-of-practice students for better employment. For some of them, this means academics. In others, it means direct routes to high-paying, in-demand jobs. Bates, for example, can turn unskilled workers into diesel and heavy equipment mechanics. Clover Park trains people to create carbon composite aircraft components at Frederickson.

I-1351 can’t be allowed to stunt Washington’s two-year colleges and universities, or any other essential state service. It’s tough to battle a newly passed initiative, even a narrowly approved one, but lawmakers can’t duck this fight.