The new building represents the ongoing challenge of providing more education capacity across the state.
A striking new computer-science building at the University of Washington is a monument to the state’s prosperity and investments creating more opportunity for success.
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The building’s dedication last Thursday is an opportunity to reflect on that progress and consider how much more is needed.
First, it’s a testament to the generosity of business leaders who gave about two-thirds of the $110 million cost of the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering. Microsoft President Brad Smith recruited more than a dozen families in the tech industry to contribute a large share to name the building in honor of the Gateses.
It’s tremendous to see those who benefited the most from the UW’s outstanding computer-science program ensure that it keeps growing and creating more opportunity for others to succeed.
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Second, the building represents the Legislature’s balancing act as it continues overhauling and enlarging its entire education system, while trying to also address growing social-service, environmental and transportation needs. There’s always a need for more, but Washingtonians should be proud that the state is finding ways to steadily increase everything from early learning through esoteric graduate research programs, such as labs at the new UW building exploring ways to use DNA to store digital information.
While making historic increases in K-12 education funding over the last four years, the state also managed to lower university tuition and increase capacity at the UW’s world-class computer-science program. The goal was to provide enough slots for every student who meets the program’s admission criteria, said State Rep. Drew Hansen, a Bainbridge Democrat chairing the House higher-education committee.
The program is on track to grant 620 degrees per year, up from 300 per year five years ago. That also needed more teaching space, labs and offices, since the program had outgrown the circa 2003 Paul G. Allen Center across the street. It also requires more faculty, which should be easier to recruit into a dazzling new building with stunning views of Husky Stadium and Lake Washington.
Last but not least, the new building represents the ongoing challenge of providing more education capacity across the state.
State capital spending on higher education remains well below its pre-recession level. That’s unlikely to change in the near future because the state is funding enormous amounts of K-12 school construction, to serve the growing population, reduce class-sizes and replace worn-out facilities. State capital spending on K-12 facilities doubled in the 2017-2019 biennium, to $1 billion, as higher-education capital spending fell from $980 million to $723.5 million.
That’s just a start. Gov. Jay Inslee’s capital plan for the 2017-2027 decade proposes more than $8 billion for public schools and more than $3 billion at state universities. Actual costs are much higher, since these projects are generally funded with bonds, donations and local dollars.
Legislators are now drafting the next capital budget. State Sen. David Frockt, a North Seattle Democrat working on capital spending, wants more for higher education, particularly community colleges. But he noted that the state is obligated to fund another wave of K-12 school construction and more capacity in the mental-health system.
New revenue sources are being discussed, but major changes to the state tax system should involve more deliberation and public involvement than this short legislative session allows.
Hansen made an excellent suggestion: Washington should begin a broad conversation, involving business interests advocating for more career training, to brainstorm ways to fund the looming costs to maintain and expand its higher-education system.
New buildings like the Bill and Melinda Gates Center and philanthropy that enables them are wonderful. But the state’s work to provide more opportunity and places for students to succeed and start careers is just beginning.