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Now, how shall we fund education?

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By John Burbank
We may know who will be governor by the time you read this. nd then again, we may not. The same goes for some competitive legislative races, like the state senate race north of Everett between Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, and Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. But no matter who wins, there is a lot of work to do. Our governments, at the federal, state, and local levels, must grapple with the slow motion of our economy, the defunding of public services, and the necessity of new jobs.
Nationally, enhancing Social Security has got to be at the top of the list. We have witnessed, and many readers have been victims of, the undermining of America's private retirement system. Defined benefit plans have been defunded by corporations, replaced by deferred contribution plans, and those plans in turn are underfunded and lost much of their value in the 2008-2009 downturn. So Americans are more dependent than ever on Social Security for their retirement.
The talk in Washington D.C. is to make Social Security fiscally sustainable. That translates into diminishing benefits, whether through reducing the cost-of-living adjustment, raising the retirement age to 70, or privatizing the entire system. When D.C. lobbyists say protect Social Security, they mean "take it apart".
What they don't say is that Social Security is the best-funded program of the federal government, with a $2.7 trillion surplus. With the private retirement system draining away, it makes a lot more sense to enhance Social Security benefits. There is draft legislation to increase widows' and widowers' benefits, to make sure that women are not penalized for taking time out of work to care for their children, and to insure that the cost-of-living factor keeps up with seniors' expenditures on health care. Those are the tweaks we need to keep current retirees and future seniors from falling into poverty.
We have a lot of work to do at the state level. The highest priority has to be funding our state's public education system. The education of all children is the paramount constitutional duty of the state. And we have failed in this, according to our own Supreme Court. We need to fully fund early learning so all kids start kindergarten with the opportunity to succeed. Once kids are in school, they need class sizes small enough to get individual attention, arts and music and physical education, school counselors to help kids find their way through family crises and eventually to work and college, and second language immersion pathways all over the state (we are in a global economy, after all).
When our kids graduate from high school, they and their families face skyrocketing costs to go on to community college or public university. One year of community college tuition is over $4,000. One year at the University of Washington equals about one-quarter of the typical family's annual income. So we need to find a way to put a halt to tuition increases, roll back those tuitions, and open wide the doors to higher education for our youth.
What would it cost to appropriately fund education? Our Superintendent of Schools, Randy Dorn, estimates the K-12 total at $4.1 billion a year. Add in $1.5 billion for early learning and public higher education (less than what has been cut in the past three years), and we are looking at $5.6 billion. You don't get that through more efficiency, cutting other programs, or watching the economy grow. Those dogs don't hunt.
The only way to appropriately fund our children's education is through taxes. This means, of course, that once again we have to look at our upside-down tax system which weighs so heavily on low income and middle class families, and lets the wealthy avoid their share of paying for public services.
The myth that we can fund education without tax increases was embraced by both candidates for governor. Now let's be real. Whoever is our governor should be straightforward with the people of our state. He should pose two choices. The first is to continue to cut back on education, health coverage, school construction, parks, transportation, community colleges, environmental clean-ups, and public health. The alternative of restoring and enhancing services is only possible if we raise public revenue. That means taxes, and that means it is necessary to tax the wealthy who have benefitted the most in our state. Now you might say that dog doesn't hunt. But if we don't face up to this reality, that dog won't even walk.

John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute ( He can be reached via email at

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