Inslee: Spend on early education, full-time kindergarten, freeze college tuition

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has unveiled a sweeping education upgrade for the state, ranging from expanded preschool for poor kids to full-day kindergarten to hiring 7,000 more teachers to reduce class size in the first three grades of elementary school.

The plan would offer relief to hard-pressed students at the state’s public colleges, with a tuition freeze over the 2015-17 biennium. It would spend more money on Opportunity Scholarships money for those in “high-demand” health, science and engineering fields, and boost the College Bound and State Need Grant programs.

The program even provides an early commitment of financial aid to low-income 7th and 8th graders who pledge to attend college.

The state’s teachers even get more money — a $235.5 million salary increase under the state’s voter-passed, often-set-aside Initiative 732. The governor would then provide $150.1 million to cover a 3 percent salary increase for 2015-16 followed by 1.8 percent for the 2016-17 school year.

Inslee plans to explain Thursday how he will pay for what is essentially a remedial plan to make up for ravages of the Great Recession on public education in Washington.

The recession hit deeply. Between 2008 and 2012, average in-state undergraduate tuition soared by 73 percent at Washington’s research universities, 56 percent at regional universities and 42 percent at community colleges.

But the universities have been hit by declining state support.

“The tuition freeze has to come with additional state funding for colleges: Otherwise it will cost students in the long run as they would have to spend an additional $15-20,000 for a fifth year to complete their degrees,” said Patrick Stickney, director of Western Advocates, an alumni advocacy group for Western Washington University.

Inslee is filling in specifics, after talking of education largely in general terms and glowing anecdotes about programs he has recently visited.

He is thinking big.

The governor’s budget will provide for the largest-ever investment in early learning, with $79.8 million provided for 6,358 new preschool spaces, bringing to a total of 16,449 children from low-income Washington families who will have access to preschool.

In support of intervention services through the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers program, the state will provide $4 million to help 1,500 more children with special needs.

The Governor’s budget would spent $107.6 million to implement full-day kindergarten statewide in the 2016-17 school year.

Responding to narrowly enacted Initiative 1351 — which prescribed for lower class sizes, but provided no way to pay for them — Inslee is proposing to reduce class sizes to 17 for kindergarten through third grade in the 2016-17 school year. Elementary school classes are as high as 25 in some schools, and 20-24 students in schools with large numbers of low-income students.

The state will spend more on supplies and materials, boost the number of guidance counselors at high-poverty middle schools, and award grants to elementary schools to implement breakfast-after-the-bell programs “so nearly 30,000 students start the day well fed and ready to learn.”

Inslee has waxed eloquent about his own childhood outdoor learning experiences, thanks to a father who taught biology at Garfield High School, and how his grandchildren — and all grandchildren — should get to know the outdoor Washington.

The governor’s budget contains $1 million to increase outdoor learning opportunities for 5,000 fourth- and fifth-graders to “connect with nature and get an appreciation of the environment.”

The state’s recent political campaigns have been filled with talk of how Washington’s technology, clean energy and aerospace-based economy is creating jobs, while the state’s public schools and universities are not delivering graduates to fill them.

The Inslee budget goes after the problem in a variety of fields.

It expands the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program (MESA) at community and technical colleges by 600 slots to boost support for students in high-demand fields.

The governor would expand advance computer science and engineering programs at the University of Washington and Washington State University to keep up with job demands. “A total of 225 high-demand slots will be added,” said a briefing paper from the Governor’s office.

The budget will grow support of registered aerospace and advanced manufacturing apprenticeship programs at 20 colleges across the state.

The governor’s proposal, using inelegant language, “increases long-term production of math and science graduates” by a combined 400 graduates at Western, Central and Eastern Washington Universities and The Evergreen State College.

Inslee is even using education to cement his reputation as America’s most “green” governor.

He wants permanent funding of $1.4 million to support the Washington Ocean Acidification Center at the University of Washington to research and monitor increasingly acidic waters of the world’s oceans. Inslee has dwelt at length on the threat to Washington’s $300 million shellfish industry.

The governor’s budget adds money for the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, including providing technical assistance on impacts to Washington communities, businesses and governments.

And Inslee would expand voluntary energy and engineering audit programs at Washington State University’s Extension-Energy Program.

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