Posted by Brad Smith
Executive Vice President & General Counsel, Microsoft

Recently, I had the opportunity to share at the annual conference of the Washington State Academy of Sciences some lessons learned from my experience serving as the chair of Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Higher Education Funding Task Force earlier this year. And as legislators prepare to return to yet another budget crisis awaiting them in Olympia, I thought it might be useful to share those lessons on this blog as well.

In Washington, our state’s master plan for higher education calls on our colleges and universities to grow enrollments by 27 percent over the next seven years. But few believe we will meet this need with a higher education system funded by below-market tuition and eroding state support. Conventional wisdom has held that this problem is too intractable to fix, both from a financial and political perspective.

But during the 2011 legislative session, by coming together, identifying a common goal, meeting with each other and working together on a plan to realize that goal, the business community, our public university presidents, the alumni community, education groups, legislators and the Governor were able to achieve something remarkable. By staying focused on the goal of growing enrollment capacity at our universities, we were able to create a new financial foundation for our higher education system.

This included:

· Giving universities the authority to set their own tuition, something most public universities in the country already have.

· Tying the level of direct state funding to tuition levels, making it clear to all that when state funding for higher education is cut, tuition must increase.

· Doing something no other state in the country has done: create a public-private endowment for student financial aid, which will welcome contributions from individuals, foundations and businesses, and then match those contributions dollar for dollar with state funding.

Microsoft and Boeing have already each pledged $25 million to the endowment, and these initial contributions will allow the first Opportunity Scholarships to be awarded this December.

Moving forward, Microsoft appreciates the significant fiscal challenges the Governor and the Legislature face in keeping not just our higher education system financially sound, but our entire system of basic education. In many ways, the challenge of finding a long-term sustainable funding solution for the full spectrum of education is even greater than last year’s challenge. This is why there is an even greater need for all of us inside and outside of government to come together once again around a common goal and focus on what matters most.

At Microsoft, we believe this means investing in our teachers – especially in the STEM fields. During the back-to-school month of September, we participated in several important announcements to further this goal, including:

· The second round of grants of the non-profit Washington STEM – of which Microsoft is a proud co-founder and sponsor – which will encourage educators to “take risks, pilot new ideas, and generate promising practices that can be shared statewide to deepen student STEM literacy.”

· A partnership with the state of Washington to provide an IT Academy program for all high school students in the state to develop the 21st century skills they’ll need to be successful in college and in their careers.

· A unique partnership with locals high schools called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), where Microsoft employees volunteer their time and contribute their technology expertise to teach the kind of computer science skills that the schools are struggling to provide on their own.

Microsoft recognizes its special role and responsibility as the state’s second largest private employer in helping to ensure that our schools have an opportunity to hire, promote and retain great teachers, so that our kids have the opportunity to get a great education from great teachers.

We intend to remain fully engaged with those inside and outside of government in what is proving to be the most important issue of our time.