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Originally published January 27, 2012 at 3:01 PM | Page modified January 27, 2012 at 7:27 PM

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A fresh look at the challenge of improving Washington's higher-education system

The Times underscores its positions on Washington state Legislature's responsibility to the state's education system — for citizens from birth through college — in graphical form. Editorial Page editor Kate Riley explains why.

Seattle Times editorial page editor

The Greater Good

Future of higher education

JOIN THE PRESIDENTS of Washington state's four-year universities and key business leaders to discuss the risks of continued state cuts to higher education. "Six Presidents: An Unprecedented Conversation on Higher Education Funding in Washington" will be moderated by Kate Riley and Times business columnist Jon Talton.

The event will be 7 to 9 p.m., Wednesday, at 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 admission will benefit College Success Foundation scholarships (

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The look of Sunday's editorial page might surprise readers, but the message is familiar and important.

The state of Washington's education system — and by system, we mean the ways we educate our citizens from birth through graduate school — is imperiled. State decision-makers over the years have prioritized many things over this core function of government, which underpins our economy and quality of life.

School districts increasingly have relied on local voters to fund important education programs — because state appropriations have not kept up. Tax levies now make up a quarter of local school budgets. The state was duly chastised for this erosion in the recent state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. State of Washington.

As state lawmakers work to meet the high court's expectations in the face of the continuing state budget crisis, they must be sure to look for money-saving reforms and not just throw more money at an entrenched system. And they must also not shortchange the bookends of education — early learning, a relatively new state focus, and especially higher education.

In McCleary's wake, the state's public universities, community and technology colleges are even more at risk. And that's after state funding has been nearly halved in the past four years.

The state's higher-ed institutions are economic engines in their communities, educating our own citizens to take the jobs our businesses offer. But there is a gap: Even in this era of high unemployment, many jobs in our state want for qualified Washington applicants. (Don't miss the op-ed by Brad Smith, Microsoft executive vice president.)

Sunday's editorial page highlights where the system — and students — are struggling, and the opportunities.

Editorial writer Lynne Varner dug into reports, sifting and culling data. Whitney Stensrud, Times art director for graphics, brought her talented sensibility of graphical storytelling. With artist Gabriel Campan-ario's illustration, they constructed a serious-minded glimpse of what Washington's challenges are and what can be done.

Sunday's pages kick off several Times-involved conversations about education.

• Wednesday, the Greater Good Campaign, which includes The Seattle Times Co., and Town Hall invite the community to a conversation with the presidents of the state's six four-year universities and three key business leaders, including Smith.

• At noon Thursday, join Varner, Washington State University President Elson Floyd, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and two college students in an online chat to talk about higher education.

(Go to

Kate Riley's is editorial page editor of The Seattle Times. Her email address is