Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee believes he has a rescue plan for the state’s nearly 300,000 unemployed workers, but jobless Washingtonians should be patient while waiting for relief to arrive. On closer inspection, the Inslee jobs plan is less about jobs and more about implementing the new governor’s liberal policy agenda for climate change, clean energy industry expansion and enlarging the role of state government.

A grab bag of action items including changes in education, expansion of Medicaid, taxpayer investments in clean energy startups, and new investments in clean transportation, Inslee’s ‘Working Washington Agenda’ has three guiding principles – innovation, focus and alignment, the three horsemen of every Inslee stump speech of the last year, the most static rhetorical piece in recent political memory)– and five “buckets” of action items designed to “create and sustain a thriving economic climate.”

By the end of his announcement – a roughly 20-minute stream of trite management-speak and half promises –Inslee had filled his five action buckets with something, but perhaps not the substantive reform-minded ideas many Washington businesses and residents are looking for from state government.

[pullquote]On the whiteboard, the idea of sending our children into adulthood better prepared to earn a decent living will not elicit much dissent. In practice, there are serious and glaring glitches with Inslee’s conveyor belt vision for tomorrow’s schools in which students are handed off to employers shortly after graduation.[/pullquote]

But what may cause real worry among many is that the fine print in this plan for the state economy is still unwritten. Nevertheless, by reading between the lines we can see some early warning signs of why adopting the Working Washington Agenda is a move in the wrong direction.

A key long-term component of the Inslee jobs plan is the proposal to retool schools for producing graduates who have skills needed by today’s employers. On the whiteboard, the idea of sending our children into adulthood better prepared to earn a decent living will not elicit much dissent. In practice, there are serious and glaring glitches with Inslee’s conveyor belt vision for tomorrow’s schools in which students are handed off to employers shortly after graduation.

Making more opportunities available for development of career-worthy skills is a good goal, but Inslee’s mission to align the school output (i.e., students) with the demands of employers seems to go well beyond that simple purpose.

Inslee’s sales pitch for the education package welded to his jobs plan has clues to deduce his full intent:

“We have to match the demands for specific skills in our new economy with the production of our kids and adults to fulfill those jobs…”

[Note: It’s important to translate modern liberal speech into plain English. The word “we” lives in the language of liberal Democrats such as Pres. Barack Obama or Gov. Inslee as a euphemism for an idea they cannot fully disclose. In today’s liberal lexicon, “we” does not truly mean society. It definitely does not mean private individuals coming together outside of government. “We” means government.]

“We do not have an adequate alignment of the needs of our employers today and the production of specific skill sets to fulfill those jobs and that misalignment is of the utmost importance if we’re going to, in fact, reach our innovative potential.”

Hmmm, if too many kids want to be journalists, rock stars, farmers, barbers, or even politicians and too few want to pursue careers in the solar panel manufacturing or biotech companies that are being supported by state investments, how will Inslee act to ensure a proper “alignment” of skills and employer demands?

Pre-Inslee, a variety of incentives impacting the student over their life and decisions about trade-offs from different types of employment would guide their choices for education and a career. Post-Inslee, does the student’s role in making those choices have to recede slightly to allow room for a government-centered process involving metric analysis of future economic demand for labor? Is the student’s involvement further diminished to make space for a swarm of intermediaries coordinating the needs of educators, businesses and government?

It should be obvious by now is that what is not mentioned in the education component of Inslee’s jobs plan are students and the choices they will make for themselves. By ignoring that aspect of the education-workplace continuum, the Inslee plan neglects the powerful effect that individual incentives have within the systems he wishes to harness.

Also telling is that Gov. Inslee’s education side road on the road to job creation continues to stubbornly ignore the most important new tool voters placed in his education toolbox – public charter schools.

As enacted through the passage of Initiative 1240 last year, with power to create specialized curricula, charter schools are the missing piece of the jobs puzzle, one that allows for maximum flexibility to adapt to shifting demands that are not so easy to foresee. Traditional school districts are bureaucratic institutions that tend not to adapt quickly, but individual charter schools can.

Independently managed and publicly funded with strict accountability, charter schools have the ability and incentive to adapt to meet different demands among diverse student groups; they are the Swiss Army knife in any governor’s education repair kit. Inslee should not be afraid to use them and perhaps even advocate an early expansion of the system.

Washington’s charter schools could address the needs of parents and students in ways traditional public school counterparts simply cannot. Most importantly, they are immediately accountable to the parents of voluntarily enrolled students, not to standards imposed by the governor through sweeping education policy enactments.

Regardless of the governor’s attitude toward charter schools, his perception that our public education system is a tool of government for achieving its economic goals – instead of being a tool of individuals for achieving theirs – represents something of a departure from our traditional values and one that should be carefully considered in discussions of these sweeping policy proposals.


[featured photo credit: flickr]