Take cues from tech companies to help fund state schools.

Share story

You’d think a state that’s counting on pot smokers to help balance its budget could lean on its tech industry a little more.

Tech is already helping lawmakers finish an education-friendly budget, in subtle ways. Its presence hovers like a cloud of smoke in a Seattle park.

But there’s so much more that could be done if you take a deep breath and imagine the possibilities.

For years, tech companies have pushed Olympia to better fund education, especially programs that produce engineers. They also need quality schools to recruit people with families; that’s more critical to a $100 billion company than a few state tax credits.

Most Read Opinion Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Perhaps more important, tech companies taught the lead budget-writers how to haggle, scrutinize every cell in a spreadsheet, and eventually finish and deliver a horribly complex product.

State Reps. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, are veterans of Microsoft and McCaw Cellular, respectively. Their foil in the state Senate, Andy Hill, R-Redmond, was career Microsoft.

They’re used to endless cycles of new products and updates, which is good since finishing this year’s budget is just the start.

They’re used to endless cycles of new products and updates, which is good since finishing this year’s budget is just the start.”

Once the state begins funding smaller classes — fulfilling its obligation under the state Constitution — it will have to figure out how to pay for new classrooms needed to house them.

This could lead to a statewide school-building boom. Over time, it could rival what Amazon.com is doing in Seattle and Microsoft did in Redmond over the last decade.

It’s a little scary. Especially since we’re building state budgets around expectations of soaring tax revenues from marijuana consumption. If this luck continues, student suspensions for drug possession could delay the need for more classroom space.

It’s also exciting, if you look at the upgrade to Washington schools as a grand investment in children who will produce the state’s next century of growth, innovation and prosperity.

We’re all becoming their angel investors. So we should take more cues from successful tech companies, such as:

• Branding: To help fund new and enlarged K-12 schools, we could sell naming rights. This might attract direct support from tech tycoons who have demonstrated their support of education by paying to name computer-science buildings and other university facilities.

To put donors’ names or brands on a K-12 building would be gauche. Instead, those donating $5 million or more could name it after a favorite inventor, artist or historical figure.

• Monetization: Google and others pay dearly to acquire customers for their online services. Over the years, they’ve spent billions on giveaways like free photo storage to entice people to register, knowing that once they create an account, they’re likely to be customers for life. Schools should keep this in mind as they use more computers in the classroom.

Before prompting students to sign up for online accounts with the tech giants, schools might collect a customer-acquisition commission. A referral fee of, say, $200 per student could be used for facility improvements.

• Placement: Schools shouldn’t settle for education discounts on computers and tablets, especially now that such hardware is becoming a cheap commodity. Perhaps schools could negotiate “product placement” deals with companies that want to cultivate young consumers and to place gear in schools.

Microsoft is reportedly paying the NFL $400 million for a five-year marketing contract that has teams using Surface tablets on the sidelines. I wonder if it would have built as much or more brand loyalty by providing $400 PCs to each of the 1 million students in Washington schools. Or a $100 tablet for the 80,000 eighth graders, every year for five years.

• HR efficiency: The state has been ordered by its Supreme Court to assume responsibility for K-12 school funding. The idea is to move away from a hodgepodge of state funds and local levies that vary from district to district.

Once this happens, the state should take cues from the human-resource departments of global tech companies. They’re used to managing around 100,000 people, which is roughly the scale of the state’s K-12 school system. They also know how to deal with geographic differences in wages and living costs.

Microsoft, for instance, has formulas to adjust compensation for workers in higher-cost and lower-cost areas, ranging from Singapore to Fargo, N.D.

These adjustments are done largely with computers, which is preferable to labor-intensive contract negotiations done separately in every district in Washington.

Because of the efficiencies this would introduce, the teachers unions could lower overheads and collect smaller dues. That would boost take-home pay for teachers.

Teachers and parents would appreciate the certainty of a more efficient system — as would taxpayers investing in those promising little startups, sitting in every school chair.