Middle class needs GET

Legislators exhibit their core beliefs (and core dislikes) as they triage the state budget. Who benefits and who pays? Policies are an index of public values, and the priorities barometer is revealing.

Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition Plan (GET) is an illustration. For 15 years, the program has made higher ed a manageable option for middle class families. Individuals purchase tuition credits at current prices and subsequently redeem them when the student attends one of Washington’s public higher ed institutions. The program has attracted low and middle-income parents anxious to plan for their children’s future, a tuition-security investment for an evolving higher ed landscape.

That evolving landscape took on new meaning as lawmakers monkeyed with tuition, de facto shifting the cost burden to students. GET units track with expected tuition increases, and double-digit spikes undercut actuarial forecasts. The glitch spurred a legislative advisory committee to recommend eventually sandbagging GET.

If the program was insolvent or represented a salient risk to future budgets, then phasing out GET and finding a suitable replacement would make sense. It doesn’t. Last Monday, the state Actuary’s office issued a report to state Sen. Ed Murray documenting that if the current tuition structure and GET remain status quo, there is just a 0.6 percent chance that the state will need to dip into general funds to cover liabilities.

The miniscule figure is misleading because it is predicated on tuition covering 70 percent of higher ed costs. That formula is likely to move to a 40/60 state-tuition split which would reduce the risk to 0.2 percent. A 50-50 split in the next seven years would boot the risk to non-existent.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom made zeroing out GET a priority, but the blowback was fierce (see “public values” above) and he took a mulligan. Sen. Barbara Bailey, the newly minted chair of the Higher Education Committee, demonstrated real leadership, underlining GET’s overarching mission.

“I want to take a thoughtful look at the GET program and make sure we keep the financial integrity of the system intact” Bailey said. “We are looking closely at how we can continue to provide Washington’s hard working, middle-class families with the opportunity to invest in higher education. We still have a lot of work to do, but it is my intention to pursue reforms that will preserve this program for years to come.”

Bailey, a Republican, finds common cause with a Democrat, Sen. Nick Harper of Everett. It’s a propitious sign.

“GET is one of the few tools we have to provide affordable access to higher education for middle class families,” Harper said. “It’s important that the Legislature do whatever is necessary to ensure its viability.” Amen.

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