Is A University Education Basic?

UW Prof: It is interesting to speculate about whether higher education could be
considered a subset of Washington state government’s “paramount duty…

(WASTATE’s constitution requires) the state “to make ample provision for the education of all children residing
within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of
race, color, caste, or sex.”

But such a change faces steep institutional disincentives: the state
Senate is controlled by Republicans with a generally anti-tax agenda,
and even supportive Democrats in the House have no idea how to
adequately fund public higher education in Washington state. I doubt
that anything short of a favorable court decision could compel
legislators to consider the “ample provision” of higher education as
part of the state government’s “paramount duty.” And even then, as we’ve
seen with K-12 funding, legislators might prefer to be in contempt of
court than to actually raise taxes or make painful cuts to increase
funding for education.

It should also be noted that even if higher education were considered
part of the state government’s paramount duty, it would increase
political pressure for the state government to eliminate all human
services funding, which make up 13% of the state budget but which would
make up more than 50% of the state’s discretionary spending if higher
education’s budget were protected from cuts. This has been a state
Republican Party strategy at least since McKenna’s 2012 gubernatorial
campaign: to pit education against human services in order to defund
human services instead of increasing taxes. Democrats are increasingly
feeling pressure to adopt this strategy in order to respond to the
unfunded mandates produced by I-1351 and McCleary litigation while faced
with a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall.

Tax reform remains urgent– but labor, education, human services and
environment advocates are sufficiently divided and/ or dependent upon
the Democratic Party that the kind of pressure politics necessary to
compel real tax reform in this moment are almost totally missing. So it
seems more likely than not that we’re staring at more years of austerity
and privatization ahead, overseen by Democrats here in “liberal” Washington.

For those interested in some of the budget issues facing WA state in the
next session, I recommend checking out this powerpoint presented to the
Regents by the WA state OFM in September: I
also recommend the Washington Budget and Policy Center blog:

Trevor Griffey
Lecturer, U.S. History and Labor Studies
Co-Founder, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project
University of Washington

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