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Editorial: Washington is No. 1! Or is that No. 22?

Depending on who’s doing the ranking, we’re the best in the U.S. or somewhere in the middle.

By The Herald Editorial Board

If Washington state had a big enough fridge — maybe the size of the 60-foot Lava Lamp that was supposed to be built at Soap Lake — this article could have gone on the freezer door under a Washington Apples magnet: “Why Washington Is the Best State in America.”

Earlier this week, U.S. News and World Report released its third annual ranking of states, with Washington taking the top spot based on its cumulative score on several measures: health care, education, the economy, infrastructure, opportunity, fiscal stability, crime and corrections and natural environment.

Washington didn’t finish first in any of those measures; in fact its rankings were middling for a few sectors, including 22nd for fiscal stability and only 14th for natural environment (We blame last summer’s wildfire smoke.) But the state ranked high enough on four other measures that received more weight than others based on survey results that ranked the importance of those criteria. The state ranked fourth for health care, fourth for education, third for economy and second for infrastructure. That put the state at No. 1, ahead of New Hampshire, Minnesota, Utah and Vermont.

It’s news that will be highlighted by those marketing the state to attract potential new businesses and retain existing employers (Boeing and Amazon, you do have subscriptions, right?). And mention of the article is sure to be included in the stump speech of at least one Democratic presidential candidate.

Yet, beyond some Evergreen State pride — and a chance to needle California (19th) and Oregon (27th? Yikes!) — what’s the value of these rankings?

We’ll let another group, which publishes its own comparison of the state and its 49 siblings, answer that: “It’s clearly better to be Number One and have critics try to explain why we’re really not that great, than to be at the bottom of the rankings struggling to point out how the adjudicators failed to recognize signs of greatness.”

Opportunity Washington knows a little about this game, having published its own similar rankings in recent years. The effort comes from a partnership of the Association of Washington Business, Washington Roundtable and Washington Research Council. While noting that such comparisons can be subjective, Opportunity Washington said it found U.S. News and World Report’s rankings well done and useful.

Useful, because like any report card, it offers a starting point to review what’s being done well and where improvement is needed.

In Opportunity Washington’s admittedly more critical and business-focused judgment, Washington ranked only 22nd in its scorecard from last spring. In its accounting, Utah, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia and Indiana were the top five states.

Its scorecard ranked Washington at 18th for education quality and outcome, 39th for transportation reliability and efficiency and 21st for economic vitality.

Some might scratch their heads over OppWash’s low grade for transportation against the fourth-place finish in infrastructure in the U.S. News rankings, but U.S. News also took into account the state’s strengths in renewable energy and internet access, both of which made up for the state’s obvious challenges with traffic congestion. And those with glasses half-full of Washington wine will note that a good economy and quality of life tend to contribute to that congestion.

Because each ranking uses different criteria and sources of data, an apples-to-apples (of course) comparison of the two rankings wouldn’t be fair; each has its own purposes. But Opportunity Washington, because its interests are in this state and are focused on informing policy and programs here, takes this a little more seriously than a national media outlet.

The U.S. News and World Report ranking wasn’t the state’s only mention in national media this week. On the same day Washington was celebrating its No. 1 spot, a Forbes contributor had praise for the state’s new approach to college financial aid, adopted during the Legislature’s recently completed session.

Calling it “one of the smartest financial aid packages in the country,” Forbes’ Michael T. Neitzel lauded the state for its investment in higher education, specifically the creation of the Washington College Grant program that will allow as many as 110,000 lower- and middle-income students to attend any eligible post-secondary institution in the state for free or at significantly reduced costs.

The program “hits the progressive sweet spot,” Neitzel said, because it’s supported by a tax increase paid largely by the state’s technology sector, which will benefit from a pipeline of the highly skilled workers that colleges produce. And in contrast to calls for universal “free college,” he said, the grants are means-tested and won’t go to upper-income families who can easily afford a higher education.

All this praise could go to a state’s head, but a look past the high marks to the areas that still need work — and a reminder that last year’s No. 1 in the U.S. News rankings, Iowa, fell to No. 14 this year — should keep leaders and policy makers in the state busy.

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