In Focus: We must be educating our future leaders

January 17, 2014 

Last Monday, on the first day of the 2014 legislative session, we were heartened when the Washington State House of Representatives approved HB 1817 by a 71-23 margin.

HB 1817 would enable certain low-income undocumented students to qualify for publicly funded financial aid for college. To qualify, they also must be high school graduates or GED recipients who have lived in the state for three years and stayed out of trouble with the law. Arguing against the bill on Monday, Rep. Larry Haler-R, Richland, said we must consider statistics: Last year the state was unable to serve about 32,000 students of more than 106,000 who applied for help because funds ran out.

A key statistic Haler didn’t mention was the Legislature’s actions to impose double-digit increases on college tuition rates. In 2008-09, tuition at the University of Washington was $6,697. Today, tuition is $11,806, nearly double.

This helps explain why 32,000 applicants were denied state aid for college in 2013. In 2007, only 1,600 were denied funding, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council.

Thus, the problem is not an estimated 800-1,000 undocumented students who might benefit if HB 1817 became law. While the Legislature has increased funding for state need grants in recent years, it has not kept pace with tuition increases. That, combined with a prolonged recession, has compromised the state's commitment to ensuring that a college education does not become the exclusive domain of the wealthy and privileged, as it was before enactment of the federal Higher Education Act of 1964.

Another statistic Haler should have cited is the value many children’s parents add to Washington’s economy and to our kitchen tables. According to the state Department of Agriculture, the value of Washington’s apples in 2012 was a record $3.4 billion. Industry experts expect even better results from 2013 sales.

Another statistic: State farm bureau officials acknowledge that upward of 70 percent of its workers are “document challenged” — their words. Well, 70 percent of $3.4 billion is $2.4 billion.

These are important and valid statistics to consider when contemplating whether $3 million annually is too much to help the children of the workers go to college. It’s time our state recognizes that without “document challenged” workers, Wenatchee’s standing as the “Apple Capital of the World” perishes, along with Washington’s ranking as the nation’s No. 1 producer of sweet cherries, peaches, hops and red raspberries. Not all children come from farm worker families but all of us, as consumers, have benefited from them. We enjoy the fruits of their labor and continue to pay lower prices for agricultural products than any industrialized nation in the world. Like it or not, undocumented workers are the backbone of Washington’s agricultural industry, and they are prominent in several other low-wage industries.

Do we need immigration reform? Absolutely. But we could be waiting a long time for Washington, D.C., to act with the clarity that’s needed. Until then, we are being unfair to innocent, hard-working students by not helping them further their education. And, we jeopardize Washington’s place in today’s technology and information age, where more college graduates are needed, not fewer.

As Rep. Bruce Chandler-R, Sunnyside, has often stated, “These are our children … they are the students I coached on my son’s basketball team; they are the students I watched on my daughter’s soccer team; they are the future of my community.”

We applaud the state House of Representatives for its strong bipartisan support in approving HB 1817. The Senate should do the same. Legislators also should significantly enhance the state need grant fund overall, so that all children, regardless of their family’s income, can dream of a brighter future.

Phyllis Gutiérrez-Kenney is a former state representative from the 46th Legislative District. Ricardo Sánchez is founder of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, a program of Sea Mar Community Health Centers.

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