Next Generation Washington: An update

Photo of Olympia, Washington

This past January, Washington state policymakers began what promised to be one of the most difficult, yet most significant, legislative sessions in state history. While this session was overtaken by negotiations on public education funding to comply with the state Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary v. State, lawmakers weighed several issues and opportunities critical to the future of all Washingtonians. As one of the biggest employers in Washington state, these issues are important to us.  Six months after outlining our public policy agenda, we thought it would be helpful to reflect on how these issues have progressed.

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A balanced agenda to create opportunity

As the session began, Microsoft developed its Next Generation Washington agenda as a comprehensive approach to enhance economic growth, create new opportunities for more individuals to participate in that growth, and protect and improve the quality of life enjoyed by Washington residents.  With a view towards enhancing transparency, I published our agenda in a blog in January to share the points we intended to advocate in Olympia.  Within the legislative arena and beyond, the agenda addressed five areas crucial to the future of our state:

  1. Education and workforce training
  2. Improvements to the criminal justice system
  3. Promoting equality opportunities and inclusion in the workplace
  4. Creating the Cascadia Innovation Corridor
  5. Harnessing the power of cloud computing for global good

As we now take stock of the session just ended, it’s apparent that the legislature made important progress on a great many of these issues.  At the same time, there remains an opportunity to take additional steps in these areas next year.

Education and workforce training

Going into this year’s session, it was clear that the first priority for legislators would be to address the Supreme Court’s McCleary decisions regarding the inadequacy of state funding for K-12 education.  The issue was much more than an exercise in determining what budget figure was required to meet what our constitution calls its “paramount duty.”  From our perspective, like many others, it was critical that additional funding be directed to better prepare students for future opportunities.

We commend Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators from both sides of the aisle for signing into a law a measure that substantially increases state funding for basic education.  While we believe the McCleary decisions have played a valuable role in improving education funding in accordance with the state’s constitution, we hope the state Supreme Court will agree that the constitution’s obligations have now been met.  This would enable the legislature to move beyond the court’s ongoing scrutiny and focus on the key policy needs of the kids of our state rather than on who will argue what next in additional rounds of hearings among lawyers.

While the budget negotiations took longer than most would have liked, education funding is too important an issue to rush to an easy or expedient answer.  And all options needed to be considered, especially in a legislative environment with shared leadership.  But unfortunately, the compromise came late in the session and required a legislative effort to avoid a partial government shutdown.

In the end, the good news is that the bipartisan budget adopted by lawmakers will inject an additional $7.3 billion in new state dollars into schools over the next four years.  The adopted budget continues a trend that began with the McCleary decision in 2012.  That year, the state spent $13.4 billion per biennium (two years) on K-12 education; by the 2019-2021 biennium, under this budget the state will spend $26.6 billion on K-12 education.  More importantly, the new funding in this year’s budget addresses inequities in the current system and will help close the achievement gap by providing more funding for career and technical education, skills centers, Learning Assistance Program (LAP), high-poverty schools, “Highly capable” and special education programs.

There were also other important educational wins, including an increased appropriation of more than $25 million to fund 1,800 additional early learning slots in the state’s Early Learning Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), which serves 3-and 4-year-old children from low-income families.

The legislature also approved a continuation of $7.7 million to support the Imagine Academy, which introduces students to computer science through both the school system and public libraries; $4 million in funding, to be matched by the private sector, to create new technology apprenticeships; and $2 million to continue funding computer science programs in K-12.

The legislature also appropriated $14.73 million to match private donations to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), which provides funds to help low- and middle-income students pursue degrees and careers in high-demand STEM and Health Care fields.  (I chair the WSOS board, having been appointed by the governor to do so.)  WSOS has helped create new education opportunities for more than 5,500 Washington students, and the board has proposed an expansion to include programs at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.  Our hope is that lawmakers may still approve this expansion within this biennium.

Unfortunately, the amount of time and energy that went into the McCleary deliberations meant that some other key workforce training issues were left undone.

One such area was in career-connected learning.  We believe better bridges between classroom and career can be a potential game-changer in creating new job opportunities for young people.  That’s why Microsoft hosted the first-ever Governor’s Summit on Career-Connected Learning, bringing together 400 government, business and education leaders on our Redmond campus and linking in another 800 participants around the state to discuss strategies to help ignite interest and prepare students for careers in high-demand fields.

I feel so strongly about the benefits of career-connected learning that I will join Perry England, chairman of the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board and a vice president at MacDonald Miller Facility Solutions, as co-chair of a new, public-private Career-Connected Learning Task Force, appointed by the governor.

Throughout the session, we supported the governor’s proposal for a $6 million appropriation, to be matched by private dollars, creating a new $12 million public-private partnership to engage 100,000 in-and-out-of-school youth in career-connected learning opportunities.  The primary focus for this effort would be on lowincome, rural youth and youth from populations underrepresented in high-demand fields.  While that program was not funded this session, we hope that lawmakers will revisit it in the 2018 supplemental budget.

The data is clear that post-high school training and education will be required for students to fill the jobs being created by Washington employers.  This is especially true of the fast-growing middle-wage and high-wage jobs which call for post-secondary degrees, certificates or other credentials.  This helps explain why these types of training programs have become so important.

Meanwhile, higher education funding increased by $300 million in this budget, a modest increase relative to the overall growth of $5.2 billion built into this next biennial budget.  While this was in no doubt a result of the major investments that had to be made in K-12, our state’s innovation-based economy is dependent on the graduates and research coming out of our state’s public four-year institutions.

We will therefore continue to advocate for increases in higher education funding overall with a special emphasis on STEM degree capacity at our state’s colleges and universities, especially at the University of Washington’s world-class Computer Science and Engineering school.  While we applaud the additional $2 million that will provide 60 more Computer Sciences and Engineering (CSE) spots at the University of Washington, this increase is too small to make a real difference in addressing the ever-growing talent shortage facing local employers.

Moving forward we need to do more to focus our collective energy in ensuring Washingtonians are prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs.  Having served as the chair of the effort to raise over $100 million of private and public money for the University of Washington’s new CSE building, I not surprisingly believe it’s important to fill the new building with students!  Paul Allen recently made a generous $40 million gift that will create a stronger long-term foundation for the building and the school that now bears his name.  We can only hope that the legislature will do more in 2018 than it did this year to help Washington’s own residents earn the degrees that will enable them to fill the jobs our state’s companies are growing.

Criminal justice system Improvements

A new area for Microsoft engagement this year has been to support improvements in the criminal justice system.  This has become an important priority for our company.  The growing diversity of our employees is one of Microsoft’s greatest strengths.  We believe that, as a community, we must come together to address the fact that diverse segments of our population can have widely divergent experiences in their interactions with law enforcement, and therefore widely divergent perceptions of the relationship between law enforcement professionals and the communities they serve.  It’s important to recognize that those who serve in law enforcement put their lives on the line to ensure public safety. Yet recent tragic events in our region or elsewhere in the nation have accentuated the continuing need for an expanded discussion across our state on this issue.

That’s why we supported, and were pleased to see the legislature approve, $1.2 million in additional funding for the state’s Criminal Justice Training Center to improve situational de-escalation capabilities and build stronger trust between law enforcement and communities.  To aid in this effort, Microsoft is partnering with the CJTC and investing $400,000 over the next two years to pilot the Center’s 21st Century Police Leadership program — a new curriculum designed to build a culture of modern, evidence-based approaches to the reduction of crime and recidivism, with an emphasis on procedural justice and fairness in outcomes through the interruption of implicit bias and the restoration of community trust.

We’re pleased that CJTC Executive Director Sue Rahr — a nationally recognized expert in policing and a long-time law enforcement leader in our state — will be leading this effort. Relying on the expertise and recommendations of those who know law enforcement training needs and methodology the best, we are hopeful this effort will provide some of the tools necessary to build enduring trust between our valued law enforcement professionals and the communities they serve all over this state.

We also believe that Washington state should have a criminal justice system that not only provides strong public safety protections but also creates new opportunities for offenders to reform and have an opportunity for successful, productive lives upon release.  The legislature made an important step in that direction when it passed a bill to allow the offering of associate’s degrees in institutional settings.  With that authorization now established, we at Microsoft will engage with corrections officials to determine how our technology expertise and philanthropic resources can help in offering digital literacy and coding training to some inmates in the corrections system setting.

Equal opportunity and inclusion in the workplace

Our focus on diversity was also reflected in other issues this session.  It helps explain why we believe that one of the legislature’s greatest accomplishments this session was the passage of a measure that established a statewide system for paid family medical leave.

We teamed up with the Association of Washington Business,  the Washington Hospitality Association and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in leading the business community’s engagement with labor representatives to find a balanced solution that provides important new benefits support for employees while recognizing employers’ legitimate needs to manage staffing and control costs.

When other issues like minimum wage have been addressed through ballot measures that may not have the input of all stakeholders, it’s encouraging to see the concerted effort of all parties result in a negotiated solution on the family leave issue.

A Cascadia Innovation Corridor

Vancouver and Seattle have many things in common and many complementary strengths. The Cascadia Innovation Corridor linking the two cities and connecting all the way to Portland will create a region that is stronger than its individual parts.

The region already boasts world-renowned research organizations and global corporate leaders in a diverse array of existing and emerging technology disciplines, including aviation and aeronautics; software development; cloud computing; online retailing; big data transmission, storage and analysis; the Internet of Things; mobile communications; biotechnology; the life sciences and global health.  Our goal is to leverage those assets to create new economic opportunities across the region while promoting environmental sustainability and a diverse and inclusive culture.

The state’s new transportation budget includes a $300,000 appropriation to study the potential for high-speed rail linking the two cities.  We applaud the governor and the legislature for this step.  Efforts are also underway to establish fast and convenient float plane service between Lake Union and the Coal Harbour in Vancouver.  And the University of British Columbia and University of Washington have launched, with seed funding from Microsoft, a new, cooperative urban analytics institute to apply the latest data analysis techniques to help solve vexing urban challenges, like transit and homelessness.

When the best minds in our region work together on research, economic development, and transportation, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor will drive greater connectivity, productivity and innovation for the nearly 12 million people living in British Columbia and Washington state.

Our cloud for global good policy roadmap

Cloud computing innovations coming from local companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow, and Tableau, among many others, are driving the transformation of businesses and industries around the world.  They are helping our customers create new capabilities, connect with their own customers in deeper ways, solve problems, gain insights and access new markets. We are committed to building a cloud that is trusted, responsible and available to more communities, promising economic and social benefits for all.

One of the great opportunities inherent in the proliferation of cloud computing is the creation of new economic opportunities in rural communities. But these rural Americans can’t take advantage of the opportunities cloud computing presents if they don’t have a fast internet connection – a problem for the more than 23 million Americans who reside in rural counties.

Earlier this month, we launched Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative, which aims to help close this rural connectivity gap in the U.S by bringing broadband connectivity to 2 million people in rural America by 2022. Through our direct work with partners, we will launch at least 12 projects, in 12 states in the next 12 months. You can read more about this initiative here.

One of our first projects will benefit residents of the small community of Almira, in rural eastern Washington.  Working with CenturyLink, the third-largest fixed-line operator in the U.S., the Almira project will use TV white spaces, essentially unused broadcast spectrum, to deliver broadband access and Microsoft productivity tools to residents.

In addition to providing broadband access, we expect the program to provide local farmers with access to low-cost tools like soil sensors, drones and sophisticated data analysis tools to help farmers optimize delivery of water, fertilizers and pesticides.  Our goal is to help farmers improve the management of their land and resources with data-driven tools that reduce costs and increase productivity.  It’s just one example of Microsoft’s research to apply the Internet of Things to agriculture and bring economic opportunities to more people through cloud computing.

While we believe the private sector can play the leading role in closing the rural broadband gap, the public sector also has a vital role to play, including the investment of matching funds to support capital equipment projects. Today, 11 states have earmarked funds to extend broadband service to their rural citizens. We hope state lawmakers will consider similar measures to ensure all Washingtonians, no matter where they live, can prosper from our state’s vibrant digital economy.

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The year began with significant challenges and we set some important goals to help advocate for addressing them.  So far, employers, nonprofit organizations and the public sector have come together and scored some impressive wins for students, families and the future of our state.  The legislature, in particular, deserves credit for six months of hard work to serve all the residents of our state.  Microsoft is proud to call Washington state our home, and we look forward to continuing to work with legislators to advance these priorities.

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