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Apex Learning CEO Chery Vedoe speaking at the Technology Alliance in Seattle

Ten years ago, then Boeing Commercial Airplanes boss Alan Mulally declared in front of the Seattle Rotary Club that Washington state wasn’t a great place to do business. “I think we suck,” he said.

I was reminded of that comment after attending the Technology Alliance luncheon in downtown Seattle yesterday, one of the biggest gatherings of leaders of the tech industry. And while Technology Alliance chair Cheryl Vedoe didn’t use as colorful of language as Mulally, the message was the same.

Yes, we suck when it comes to educating our youth.

The poor state of Washington’s education system was a theme that ran through the entire event, from Vedoe’s brutal comparisons between Washington and Massachusetts to keynoter Rich Barton’s plea to institute a system that rewards teachers based on their merits.

wa-competitiveVedoe, the CEO of Apex Learning, ran though a laundry list of stats about the state’s educational system. In fact, so many that my head was spinning by the end of it. The report card wasn’t one that you’d like to take home to mom and dad.

—Washington ranks 37th in total bachelor degree production among residents 18 to 24 years old, dropping five spots compared to 1998.

—Washington ranks 32nd in science and engineering bachelor degrees and 35th in PhDs.

—Washington ranks 20th in reading proficiency for 4th graders, and 9th compared to other high-tech peer states. By comparison, half of Massachusetts 4th graders are proficient in reading, compared to just one third in Washington.

—Only 37 percent of Washington state middle school students are proficient in reading, and only 40 percent are proficient in math.

—77 percent of Washington students finish high school on time, compared to 83 percent in Massachusetts. Nearly three quarters of Massachusetts students enroll in college, compared to 48 percent in Washington.

—Washington ranks 30th in funding for K-12, dropping five spots since 1999.

—Washington ranks 49th in funding for higher education on a per-student basis.

wa-education11The Technology Alliance has been benchmarking the educational system in Washington state for 10 years, and the message never really seems to change.

In fact, Vedoe compared the findings to that of Groundhog Day, where things always stay the same. “I am here telling the same story now a few years later about where we are in education,” she said.

Despite the fact that Washington state is actually falling behind in key areas, Vedoe said the tech industry is moving forward and thriving. However, the innovation economy is moving forward, largely through the import of talent from other places.

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“It seems you can grow an innovation economy by largely relying on imported talent. And that’s what we are doing — relying on imported talent. The question for us to consider is as a state: Is that really what we want to do? Don’t we want those children who grow up here in Washington, our own citizens, to have a fair shot at the jobs that we are creating here?”

During his keynote remarks, Zillow co-founder Rich Barton, who supports charter schools and a state income tax, said we’ve been unable to change public education in any meaningful way.

“We are a high-tech state. We are a wealthy state, and I can’t believe that’s going on. And I don’t really understand why,” said Barton, referencing some of the charts shown during Vedoe’s presentation. “Many of the people in this room probably send their kids to private school, and that’s part of the problem. I do too. It’s bad. I am the product of great public schools in Connecticut.  And I wish we had public schools here that could compete.”

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