State budget must invest wisely in education: Yes to STEM, No to I-1351 Class Size Measure

This week Gov. Jay Inslee rolls out his 2015-2017 budget proposals. Education funding will take center stage, driven by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate and voter-approved (narrowly) class size reduction Initiative 1351. While I-1351, which adds $4.7 billion in new spending over the next four years, is clearly unaffordable, lawmakers are expected to add $1.0 billion to $1.5 billion for McCleary. K-12 education funding will be increased substantially.

More than dollars are at stake. It’s important that the money be spent wisely. The Boston Consulting Group recently released Opportunity for All: Investing in Washington’s STEM Education Pipeline. The summary:

Creating more STEM jobs would not only boost Washington’s economy, it would also reduce poverty and unemployment, help all Washington families prosper, and create a better-prepared workforce. If Washington can match the practices of high-performing states, such as California and Massachusetts, it could double or triple the number of STEM jobs in the state as well as expand the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the STEM workforce.

Right now, Washington State can fix the leaks in its STEM employee pipeline and be rewarded with an economic return equal to seven times its investment. The move could generate $4.5 billion in additional tax revenues and social-spending savings per year—a significant return on the $650 million investment needed. Even better, Washingtonians could take home $12.6 billion in additional salaries. What’s more, the state could lift nearly 100,000 people out of poverty and into the middle class.

The Everett Herald lends editorial support, making the important point.

Under current trends, only 9 of 100 children born in the state will end up in STEM-related jobs in the state, jobs that BCG estimates number around 25,000 now and which could double by 2017.

Jobs not won by state residents are instead filled by out-of-state workers, or — worse yet — the jobs themselves could be sent out of state.

The Business Climate blog also takes notice.

The stakes are considerable. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University showed 15 states and the District of Columbia have STEM jobs that account for at least 5 percent of their total jobs. At 8 percent, Washington state lags only Washington D.C. and West Virginia in the share of total jobs that are STEM jobs. But as a new Boston Consulting Group study found, the state faces a serious challenge in producing enough STEM graduates to address its job skills shortage, and if not addressed, that the gap will impact lower-income students even harder and impede the state’s ability to create new jobs and reduce poverty.

Contrasting with the documented positive return on STEM investment is I-1351’s sweeping class size reduction mandate. FiveThirtyEight has an excellent analysis of the measure. I encourage you to read the whole thing. The analysis suggests the class size problem here has been overstated.

it’s not clear whether Washington’s class-size problem is as dire as I-1351’s supporters claim. “Even if we slash class sizes across the board, someone has to be 47th in the country,” said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington Bothell. “The question we should be asking is, what is the difference between Washington and the state with the smallest class size? And when you look at the data, Washington’s not hugely different.” Washington’s average class size for elementary schools is 23 students — slightly higher than the national average of 21 students.

Money matters.

“I think class-size reduction is a smart and sound policy in lots of cases,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. “But as an economist, I have to think about what would be the best use of the next dollar spent, and for an across-the-board reduction of this magnitude, the evidence just isn’t there.”

FiveThirtyEight writer Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux makes a critical point.

… practically speaking, the state government has only so much money to spend. I-1351’s biggest flaw might be its failure to acknowledge this reality.

The Seattle Times reaches the conclusion lawmakers must soon reach themselves.

Lawmakers should suspend I-1351, and focus education investments that reverse disappointing student outcomes.

The sooner 1351 comes off the table, the sooner the Legislature can shift its focus to more important priorities.