Monday, January 31, 2011

The Donner Party

Former Gardner Chief of Staff and entrepreneur Denny Heck once characterized the current legislative session as "the Donner Party". My take on it - a session where year after year of economic disaster and budget cuts has led to the increasing starvation of human services and education programs. Program advocates, normally allies, have resorted to eating their own in order to keep their programs alive.

Nowhere is this more true than in higher education.

The Washington Labor Council has been trying to increase unemployment benefits to long time unemployed workers who have been laid off from the recession and lived on low paying unemployment insurance for years. Last week, out of fear that community colleges were trying redirect that money to save the Worker Retraining Program, the Labor Council began to tell legislators that the worker retraining program is a disaster and a waste of money (despite evidence to the contrary). Labor's tactic is nothing new. They learned it from the Association of Washington Business, who in the mid-90s attacked the quality of the program as a way to attack the funding source which at that time was a diversion from the UI trust fund.

Organized labor and community and technical colleges have long been allies in promoting the worker retraining program, which provides unemployed workers the opportunity to train in high demand fields. Labors fears turn out to be wrong in this case. No legislative proposals to use unemployment funds for worker retraining has been proposed this year. But the damage to the program from labor's threats are severe and unemployed workers could find their program cut off midway through the year.

Advocates for the University of Washington and other public universities have decided that there best hope for minimizing cuts is to cannibalize community college funding. University trustee Craig Cole and major backer Dan Evans have began to publically attack colleges as a "the worst possible place to start a college education". Community college advocates have found themselves under attack in conversations with the Seattle Times and other Seattle downtown establishment figures after university advocates have been in to see them.

This kind of cannibalization should be no surprise in these tough times. In the end, unfortunately, all of players could end up being losers.