For 386,000 Washington state students, the place to become career ready is at our community and technical colleges. Yet the Legislature has failed to adequately fund them.

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WHEN many of us talk about education in Washington, our conversation revolves around public schools and charter schools. The demands are real.

The Legislature struggles to meet the state Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Charter schools, overturned by the state Supreme Court last fall but reinstated by the Legislature during its recent special session, continue to draw controversy from those with an interest in the K-12 system.

The education conversation, though, extends deeper than K-12.

When a senior graduates from high school, he or she needs a place to go to continue education. For nearly 386,000 others at different stages of their lives, that place is at our state’s community and technical colleges. That’s nearly 60 percent of all students enrolled in the state’s public colleges and universities.

All students receive an excellent education at these 34 colleges without paying a premium price. Community and technical colleges create a workforce ready for the job market. Employers need people with the skills our colleges teach. Thousands of students also continue their education after transferring to a four-year university, or even earn their bachelor’s or master’s degrees on our campuses.

Thousands more students learn what they need to know to progress for in-demand fields, such as advanced manufacturing, health care and computer science. The result is qualified people ready for jobs, leading to good, middle-class careers.

What other public-education system provides as a high of a return on taxpayer investment?

Our community and technical colleges, unfortunately, have seen little relief from the Legislature since the recession. In real dollars, state funding is down to levels not seen since before 2007. The bonds needed to construct, maintain and repair campus buildings across the state have decreased more than half — by 55 percent — in the same time period. Per-student funding has declined by more than 7 percent.

For students and their families, the Legislature, over the same period, raised tuition more than 43 percent. That’s even with a much-welcomed 5-percent cut for the 2015-2016 school year.

The drop in state funding and the resulting tuition hikes amount to lost opportunities for students, our communities and our economy.

To maintain and expand our middle class and our world-class economy, our state needs to support and grow our community and technical colleges. Continued budget reductions and tuition increases are not the answer.

State lawmakers cannot leave 386,000 students behind. We need the same urgency and action we saw this year as they saved the education for 1,500 charter-school students. Our state’s community- and technical-college students, their families, communities and the state depend on it.