As the 2023 Washington State Legislature convenes in Olympia over the next 105 days, the…
Building Back Better: Spotlight on Education Equity and Livable Cities
State and local governments across the country are facing unprecedented challenges in the year ahead. The coronavirus is spreading at record rates, long-term unemployment continues to rise, support for small businesses is drying up, and the country is bitterly divided on the path forward.
Against this dynamic backdrop, Washington’s State Legislature is poised to convene virtually in January with the priorities of promoting equity for diverse and disadvantaged populations and advancing economic recovery at the top of the agenda.
Washington’s technology sector stands ready to partner with policymakers as they look to build a stronger and more inclusive economy. Indeed, the pandemic has exposed sharp inequalities in our education system and deepened livability challenges in our cities that threaten the vitality of the technology sector and its ability to drive continued growth in the state. In the year ahead, addressing education equity and strengthening our cities should be key areas of focus for policymakers at the state and local levels.
Pandemic Underscores Need for Investment in Education Equity
This spring, Governor Jay Inslee announced the closure of schools across Washington to limit the spread of COVID-19. The virtual learning model that replaced classrooms, however, was simply out of reach for many students that lack access to the technology and internet connectivity required to learn online.
Many low-income households have multiple school-aged children with access to only one device, if that. Often, these households also lack access to the internet. In Washington, as much as 21 percent of K-12 students do not have the technology or internet connectivity required for remote learning. For families earning $20,000 a year or less, the share of households without access to the internet soars to nearly 40 percent. As a result, underserved and vulnerable students are expected to experience significantly higher rates of learning loss, setting them further back in the years to come.
Higher education is also a critical pathway to social mobility for low-income students and students of color. Yet, institutions across Washington are facing new budgetary challenges as downward pressure on enrollment and decreased revenue from auxiliary services during the pandemic threatens their overall fiscal health.
Unequal access to technology and participation in STEM programs is not just a problem during the pandemic — it is a future challenge for Washington’s technology employers. In the last decade, tech employment has exploded across Washington, growing by nearly 34 percent. Today, the tech sector accounts for over 20 percent of the state’s economy — the highest of all 50 states. By 2022, it is estimated that a third of all jobs in Washington will be STEM jobs.
Through the pandemic, the demand for tech workers has exceeded all other sectors, and jobs are growing faster than the labor pool can keep up. Continued investment in STEM programs, higher education, and workforce development is critical to meet this growing demand, as well as to ensure underrepresented populations throughout the state — including people of color, students from low-income and rural areas, and young women — have access to well-paying and stable career opportunities.
Balancing long-term education investments with near-term tech apprenticeship programs can effectively steward thousands of new tech workers into Washington’s economy and help power continued job creation in the state.
Strengthening Our Cities
Although it may not feel like it today, the pandemic will not be with us forever. It begs the question, what does Washington’s post-COVID future look like?
For this, we must consider the state’s urban centers. Once-thriving downtowns in cities from Seattle to Bellingham have been decimated by stay-at-home orders and work-from-home mandates. Restaurants and small businesses that relied heavily on the scores of workers that kept the downtown economies alive have been forced to shut their doors — many for good.
However, even before the state’s commuters and urbanites eventually return to the office, policymakers must take steps to strengthen our urban communities and make Washington a more desirable place for companies to start and grow their businesses. While many Washington cities are desirable alternatives to Silicon Valley, urban centers in Texas, Colorado, and Tennessee are increasingly drawing founders and new headquarters due to more attractive business landscapes and better livability considerations.
We must build back better, and WTIA welcomes the opportunity to partner with policymakers and our members to identify actionable solutions to strengthen our cities — from the crisis of homelessness, to equality and access, to civil liberties and social justice issues.
Indeed, the rapid economic growth and development in Washington’s cities have exacerbated the crisis of homelessness. Rates of people experiencing homelessness have also increased during the pandemic, and many cities have failed to adapt adequate shelter and service programs. It is a critical issue that requires participation from the government, private sector, service providers, and advocates alike. WTIA welcomes the opportunity to participate in the conversation to help advance solutions to this complex issue.
The pandemic has also further deepened income inequality and challenged pathways to well-paying jobs. Cities across the state must amplify efforts to expand essential technologies, such as broadband and 5G, as well as implement skilling and training programs to enable new entrants into the technology workforce.
As we look ahead, economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will require creative solutions and a broad range of partners. To ensure Washington’s economic growth continues at its historic rates, lawmakers must seriously consider policies that make Washington an attractive destination to grow and run a business. WTIA stands ready to act as a partner in identifying policies and programs that help rebuild our economy into one that is stronger and more inclusive than ever.
To learn more about the WTIA Government Affairs and Public Policy Programs, contact Molly Jones, Vice President of Government Affairs, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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