Inslee signs package of education bills, ushers in one of the most progressive education investments nationwide

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a major education bill Tuesday that establishes one of the most progressive higher education investments in the country. The Workforce Education Investment Act is a comprehensive package of major proposals that include two governor-priority policies.

The act guarantees financial aid for more than 110,000 qualified students in Washington to attend college for free or at a discounted rate. The law also expands the governor’s Career Connect Washington Initiative. It establishes a study-and-work approach so students can get real life work experience and high school or college credit at the same time.

Education stakeholders and legislators, including primary sponsor Rep. Drew Hansen (on right), gather in the Legislative Building to celebrate today’s Workforce Education Investment Act bill signing. (Office of the Governor photo)

“Washington is ahead of the nation both in providing unprecedented access to the opportunity to get a degree, certificate or apprenticeship qualification, and in creating innovative programs to connect students with work experience,” Inslee said. “We are leading the nation with our financial aid program and we’re securing quality education in a bipartisan way.”

Here’s a breakdown of the two policies:

Washington College Grant

The grant guarantees financial aid to more than 110,000 qualified students to attend college for free or at a discounted rate. Students are eligible if they sit at or below the state’s median family income, which is a little under $92,000 for a family of four.

The program will be funded by businesses that will pay an additional surcharge on the current business and occupation tax that they already pay. This means that larger firms such as Amazon and Microsoft — companies that boast a high demand for an educated workforce — shouldering more of the financial burden.

“Unlike other free college programs in the nation, this program doesn’t come with lengthy fine print about who qualifies or doesn’t,” Inslee said. “We recognize that many students have to juggle a lot in life while they go to school, whether it’s a job, family obligations, health issues or more. The Washington College Grant provides the most flexibility of any state which is absolutely crucial for part-time students.”

(Office of Financial Management graphic)

The maximum award amount that students could get is equal to the value of full tuition and fees at public colleges and universities, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council and may be used for other higher education costs such as books and housing. The grants can serve students in registered apprenticeships and at any of the state’s private colleges and universities. The bill also aims to eliminate how many students are on the wait list for financial aid.

Rep. Drew Hansen, who sponsored the bill, said the grant removes a large financial obstacle for students.

“We just made public college and apprenticeships tuition-free for thousands of Washington families and reduced tuition for thousands more,” Hansen said. “We will see the benefits of these investments for decades, as more people can now get good jobs and support their families.”

Michael Meotti, executive director at WSAC, said Washington just set the national standard for making college more affordable for lower and middle-income families.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a major education bill Tuesday that establishes one of the most progressive higher education investments in the country. (Office of the Governor photo)

“We were very excited when the governor first proposed a guarantee of financial aid to eligible students,” Meotti said. “When coupled with expanded eligibility, national experts are praising the Washington College Grant as a model. The combination of more financial support and expanded education pathways — including financial aid for apprenticeships and investments in new career launch programs — will create more education and career paths for students of all ages in Washington.”

To find out more about the Washington College Grant, visit the WSAC page. You can also read more about the governor’s initial plan for this proposal on his Medium page.

Career-connected learning

Educators and employers will work together to build an apprenticeship and broad career-connected learning system that emphasizes real-world experience. This will help students land jobs in STEM and other high-paying fields. Students can choose whether they continue with a qualified internship or if they use their new skills for a different opportunity. Either way, it means more skilled workers enter the workforce after graduation.

Switzerland and Singapore already tout success stories from this study-and-work approach. Inslee said this is a win-win for both students and businesses who are looking to hire students with the right kind of experience.

Microsoft President Brad Smith co-chaired the governor’s task force on career-connected learning in 2017. The task force’s major recommendations served as the backbone of how to define and fund career-connected learning, and how to engage employers to develop educational training programs and registered apprenticeships.

“Building stronger bridges between classrooms and careers helps our students prepare for the jobs of tomorrow,” Smith said. “By expanding the Career Connect Washington Initiative, we empower the next generation and give Washington businesses the talented workforce that they need. I applaud Gov. Inslee for his continued leadership on this important issue.”

Maud Daudon, chair of Career Connect Washington, said this past year was a hallmark year for students.

“So many people came together to help design and support the formation of Career Connect Washington for students to earn academic credit while also exploring their interests in a work-based setting,” Daudon said. “Thanks to the governor and Legislature, we now have the framework and funding to super charge our efforts and build programs in all fields in partnership with industry and educators. Now with the fully funded Washington College Grant Program, every student will be able to participate.”

Gov. Jay Inslee asked students to help hold the paper as he signed an education bill on May 21, 2019. (Office of the Governor photo)

The governor has long supported this approach. He launched his Career Connect Washington Initiative in 2018. The initiative is a public-private partnership with the five-year goal of connecting 100,000 young people with employer internships, registered apprenticeships and other learning opportunities. The goal is to prepare them for the thousands of high-demand job opportunities in the state. Many of these new jobs will not require a traditional four-year degree. While Inslee supports all types of higher education outcomes, he said this program opens up more options for students regardless of if they pursue a four-year-degree or a registered apprentice ship.

The governor created the Career Connect Washington Task Force to determine how to better align education programs with career opportunities. In 2018, the task force — composed of leaders from business, labor, state government, nonprofit organizations and education — delivered recommendations for improving Washington’s registered apprenticeship and career-connected learning programs.

State leaders hope that a stronger focus on career-connected learning and STEM education will help fill the skills gap expected to hit the nation’s economy in the next decade.

In Washington over the next five years, employers will need an estimated 740,000 workers in such fields as advanced manufacturing, health care technology, maritime and clean energy.

“Legislators on both sides of the aisle have come together time and again in support of our children, our educators and our schools,” Inslee said. “Because of that effort, I’m proud to say that Washington now has the very best financial aid program in the country.”

You can read more about the governor’s initial budget proposal on his Medium page.