By The Herald Editorial Board
Considering the economic gloom that spread quickly in the first months of the covid-19 pandemic in Washington state in early 2020 — businesses closed temporarily or permanently, workers laid off or hours cut and fears of deep revenue losses for the state — the state’s economy, its job market and its tax receipts have proved remarkably resilient.
Some of that had to do with the overall health of the state economy before the pandemic hit; the state added some 412,000 new jobs from 2014 through 2019, job growth that exceeded the national average, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Even during the bulk of the pandemic, from May 2020 through October 2021, the state was able to recoup 344,000 of the 415,000 jobs that were initially lost. And it’s expected, with the state’s forecasted 2.1 percent annual growth in jobs, that the economy over the next five years will add an additional 373,000 jobs, the majority offering wages that can support families.
The hitch, however, as determined by the Washington Roundtable — a public policy organization representing the state’s private-sector employers — is that 70 percent of those 373,000 jobs coming in the next five years — and everything after that — will require more than a high school diploma, such as a college degree, a post-secondary training credential or an apprenticeship.
Currently, the Roundtable has found, for the Class of 2019 only 43 percent of its high school graduates are on track to earn such a credential by the age of 26. And that was the estimate before the pandemic. Since then, education at the K-12 and post-secondary level have taken hits that further complicate that goal of an educated and trained workforce that can sustain 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 Economic and Revenue Forecast Council predicted that despite the pandemic and inflation the state’s economy now is expected to add another $1.45 billion in tax receipts above earlier estimates that said the state could expect $5 billion more in revenue than when the 2021-23 budget was adopted last year and assumed $61.7 billion in revenue. Adding to the coffers is about $1.3 billion in federal covid relief left to be distributed and $7.5 billion in state reserves.
It’s not that the state is lacking in deserving uses for that money, including lawmakers of both parties who have suggested handing some of it back to taxpayers as the Legislature gets into the details next week of the supplemental budget.
But others, chiefly Democrats in majority control of the purse strings have been more prudent about where that money might go, leery of making long-term commitments to programs and tax cuts, among them Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“I would caution my caucus to be cautious,” Rolfes told The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield.
Say that five times fast; then codify it in the budget.
Yet, there’s a recognition that much of that good fortune can and should be used to strengthen in the state that which covid has weakened. Education at the K-12 and post-secondary levels is among the most deserving in that respect.
While there was no other choice — especially when vaccines were unavailable in the pandemic’s first year — than to conduct classes remotely, the loss of time in classrooms has led to a loss in learning for 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 learning loss; the figure was greater for Black students (10 months) and Latinx students (9 months) and more than a year (12.4 months) for students from low-income families.
The state and school districts, as they should, have begun to address this with a focus on additional resources and opportunities to get students caught up. Some of those plans, however, have been foiled for individual school districts across the state where property tax levies have recently failed. Typically, those levies are used to fund programs above what the state considers “basic education,” including additional classroom aides, school nurses and after-school and summer school programs and more. In Snohomish County, of 13 school districts with levy measures on the Feb. 8 special election ballot, five — Granite Falls, Marysville, Monroe, Stanwood-Camano and Sultan — failed to pass their levy requests.
Recognizing the need for additional educational opportunities to assist in getting students back on track, state lawmakers should look to provide additional support of programs — especially for those districts where levies failed — that are directly focused on student learning and their physical and mental health.
At the post-secondary level, the problem is less about learning loss than in a loss of students, themselves.
Between, 2019 and 2021, the Roundtable notes, the state’s community and technical colleges enrolled 50,000 fewer students than previously enrolled, a 23 percent drop in enrollment, a loss particularly high among students 30 or younger. The state’s four-year colleges and universities saw drops as well. The state’s public four-year universities saw a 7.5 percent drop in total enrollment during the same period and an 11.5 percent drop among first-year students. For students eligible for federal Pell grants, from low-income families, their enrollment was down nearly 15 percent at four-year institutions.
There’s a concerted effort by those schools to increase outreach to potential students. The state’s community and technical colleges have committed to increasing enrollment by 9 percent; and the state’s four-year universities have pledged increases of 24 percent to 50 percent. But those commitments will require the state’s financial support — demonstrated previously in programs like Washington College Promise — and increased outreach to those eligible for financial assistance.
To address these needs, the Roundtable suggests financial and policy commitments to:
Ensure students are prepared for education and training after high school by maintaining rigorous learning standards and graduation requirements;
Establish and expand learning opportunities that are connected to career fields;
Direct funds to correct learning loss by focusing efforts on the students most affected by the pandemic; and
Address post-secondary enrollment drops by expanding dual-credit and dual-enrollment programs in high schools, increasing financial aid to post-secondary students and developing regional partnerships for setting pathways in high schools to further education and training.
Washington state has been fortunate to see its jobs and economy bounce back quickly even in the face of a stubborn pandemic. But jobs and a strong economy can’t be left to chance. An ample investment in education — at both the K-12 and post-secondary level — offers the best opportunity to keep that good fortune coming.