Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is the failure to pay for education the result of inability to budget our priorities?

There was an article in the Seattle Time Sunday insert about the lack of "whiz" kids in the Puget Sound. The premise of the article is that Seattle, despite being America's most educated city, has a dearth of home grown engineers, computer scientists, and other math related professionals. Most of our professionals are imports from the east coast or India, China, etc... The article cites a figure from Microsoft that less than 8% of it's Redmond based workforce was educated in Washington State (it's probably less than that now, I wouldn't be surprised if it was more like 5% now) as an example of this issue. I also have an anecdotal story to support their conclusion.

My brother in law is one of these computer science whiz kids. He was raised in Florida and went to school at Cornell where he received a computer engineering degree. He then went to receive post graduate education in Texas, after which he came and worked for Microsoft where he was a successful Program/Product manager (he developed the technology that allows XP to launch most digital devices you plug into it). He left Microsoft and went to Amazon where he developed the Turk program and now he's started his own web 2.0 company (speaking of which, I really should give it a plug here sometime now that it's out of beta). But he isn’t a NW native, he’s an import.

The article goes on to suggest that Seattle could become the next Detroit or Cleveland if it can’t find a way to start creating the types of labor needed for our local high tech industries.

It is a scary thought that this is a knowledge economy and what the most valuable type of knowledge these days (as ever) is math and science. I don’t think that there is a decrease in interest in math and science; it’s just that demand is up and other nations and regions are filling that demand better than we are in the NW.

It shouldn’t be too hard to market to kids that they need to study math. The benefits are very apparent. In my own life, I’ve benefited greatly from an interest in math. Although I was not a math or computer science major, I had a healthy appreciation of both topics and am skilled enough in math that I can understand most computer application pretty quickly. As I entered the corporate world I found it populated by people with weak math skills and therefore (there must be some link between understanding math and computers) they shied away from understanding the applications we worked with every day. On the other hand, I found myself excelling at these common computer applications at work and therefore my less skilled colleagues became dependent on my expertise. This dependence led to them to go above and beyond the average efforts to retain me. I watched my salary grow faster than my peers (I’ve always been able to see what everyone at any company I’ve worked for gets paid) and my raises be among the largest of anyone in the companies (including exec). This situation would not have occurred if I wasn’t the most technically savvy person in the department, I’m confident of that.

Although it’s easy to demonstrate the benefits of being math/tech savvy, many say it doesn’t matter if we do increase interest among students. The UW claims that they can’t even satisfy the current demand as they have fewer seats in the computer science programs than applicants. They also claim that they are funded less than their peer institutions.

I’m sure that my Alma Matter, Idaho, is in no better situation. I’m sure it’s per student state funding is even less than Washington’s. So, is the root cause more money?

I would answer this with a cautious yes. However, I don’t think we need to raise anymore taxes to support education. In Seattle there are requests for more and more tax payer dollars all the time. There is request to raise a couple billion in taxes for street repair; a request for tens of billions to rebuild some important infrastructure, the k-12 education system in Seattle has a 20 Million dollar shortfall; the government apparently never had enough money to perform it’s function despite the billion and billions it collect from Washington citizens every year.

So how do you balance a clear need, education funding that is essential to our economic and civic futures with the government’s inability to pay for the current expenses with it’s established tax levels? Where is the money going and where should it go?

There should be a reevaluation in the northwest to reset government priority. Is there some legal mandating that we pay for education first, essential services (fire, medical), and then the rest of the services provided is where we quibble about budgets??? Can this work at the federal level as well?

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