Washington legislators should support the state's 34 community and technical colleges.

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WASHINGTON’S 34 community and technical colleges are key to closing opportunity gaps between the haves and have-nots. They are the workhorses of the education system, open to all and serving six out of every 10 students attending public colleges statewide.

State legislators know the value of these schools. So does President Obama, who has spent part of this month promoting free community college for all — though his idea is unlikely to move through a bitterly divided Congress.

Regardless, Washington lawmakers should continue strong investment in a treasured network that starts many in their college careers and trains workers for jobs in the local economy.

Study after study proves higher education and early learning are essential to a child’s growth and ability to succeed in an increasingly competitive job market. Yet, neither is included in the state’s definition of “basic education.” Funding is prioritized for K-12 schools, even though this system has produced less-than-stellar outcomes.

Community and technical colleges, not to mention early learning, should be included in a seamless state education continuum, from ages 3 to 23. Now, many high school graduates are required to take remedial courses to prepare them for the rigors of a postsecondary education.

For community colleges, that means dedicating a portion of limited resources to helping students catch up on subjects they should have learned in high school.

Granted, these students often face barriers that university students do not. Many are first-generation enrollees. They typically are older (median age is 26) and balance work, kids and jobs.

Here’s what the Legislature can do during the current legislative session:

• Fund the State Need Grant program, which helps Washington’s poorest residents pay for in-state colleges. The grants did not cover 33,557 qualified students in the 2013-14 academic year. More than half those students attended community and technical colleges.

• Train more counselors to help students identify and work toward their goals. About 40 percent of bachelor’s degree earners statewide began at a two-year college. That number could be higher if students had a structured path.

• Freeze tuition to keep classes affordable for an estimated 388,000 students, but ensure state funding keeps up with inflation. According to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, state funding has dipped by 23 percent this biennium compared to 2009 (when adjusted for inflation) and tuition has increased 47 percent since 2009.

If Obama’s 10-year, roughly $60 billion free community-college plan actually gains traction, then Washington might be looking at some extra funding through a federal match. At that point, the question becomes how much the state must contribute and how funds would be divided up to ensure the neediest students don’t get left out.

For now, legislators can make progress by ensuring their “paramount duty” to fund education is not focused solely on some students, but all children from birth through college.