Op-Ed: Saving Running Start, now and in the future

  • Written by by Liv Finne | Center for Education director at Washington Policy Center
On February 14th, some members of the state Senate sent a rather strange valentine to Washington’s high school kids.  They voted to cut the Running Start program.
Running Start is the successful educational program created in 1990 under the Learning by Choice law.  Then-Governor Booth Gardner, a Democrat, saw the need to allow juniors and seniors in high school to enroll part-time or full-time in community and technical college.                                                                                              
The popular program provides an alternative for advanced students who don’t feel challenged in high school, giving them a head start on college.
It is also a boon to foster kids and high-risk youth in danger of dropping out.  Running Start gives them a second chance.  They can earn the equivalent to a high school diploma and get a start on college, potentially saving them from lifetime of low earnings and stunted opportunities.
In February, however, Senator Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island), Chair of the Senate Education Committee, who was elected with strong union support, proposed an amendment to cut $30 million from Running Start.  Her amendment passed narrowly, 25 to 22, with all Democrats supporting it and all Republicans, joined by Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Shelton) opposed.
Executives at the powerful WEA teachers union sought the cut because they see Running Start as competing with their own programs for state education funding.  Once again, in a political fight among adults, school kids got caught in the middle.
Union executives in our state take some $37 million a year in mandatory dues from Washington’s teacher paychecks.  High school teachers are required to make the monthly payments as a condition for holding their jobs, but college and university professors are not.  Union executives see Running Start funding as a direct loss to their bottom line.
Running Start has worked well for 27 years.  It has helped thousands of young people get a strong start on higher education, and saved thousands from dropping out.  Parents like the program because it challenges bright kids beyond what public school can offer.  Counselors and social workers like the program because it provides a path to success for troubled youth when traditional high school isn’t working for them.  No wonder it’s popular.
The effort by some Senators to cut the program did not go unnoticed.  The Board of Community and Technical Colleges briefed lawmakers on the benefits of the program.  Legislative offices received hundreds of contacts from families about how Running Start had helped their children succeed in school and in life.
Lawmakers responded, and the Wellman amendment was defeated in the House.
Running Start funding was saved...this time.  Union executives are unlikely to give up.  They seldom do.  We can expect further attempts to cut Running Start in the future.
The only real solution is to give Running Start money directly to eligible public school students, in the form of a voucher or a personal education account.  High school students could then use the funding to attend the public community or technical college of their choice, just as they do now.  The difference is their funding would no longer be subject to the whims of special interest politics.
Expanding family choice in public education would protect students by putting decisions about where education money goes in the hands of parents, not elected politicians.  Then on Valentine’s Day students can think more about heart-shaped greeting cards, and less about efforts to cut their education funding.

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