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June 23, 2014 at 6:22 AM

Frank Blethen: When we fail to educate our children we are destined for failure

Editor’s note: Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen gave a commencement speech to City University of Seattle on Saturday about the importance of education. His prepared remarks are below the video.

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Head shot Frank Blethen, publisher, S

Congratulations on your degree!

What a wonderful accomplishment.

This will be one of the major determinants of your future.

This seminal step in your life is an important beginning. The beginning of the lifelong learning essential to maintain your economic and intellectual health in today’s uncertain and ever-changing world.

One hundred years ago, a high school education was our country’s primary path to a better life.

Fifty years ago, that path began to also require post-secondary education or technical training.

Today, a baccalaureate degree and life-long learning are essential.

In the future, two-thirds of new jobs will require a college degree.

How ironic that our state’s shameful disinvestment in higher education has resulted in 20,000 well-paid, high-skilled jobs going unfilled at this very moment, while our state’s wealth and opportunity gaps grow.

A $15 minimum wage makes for good headlines; unfortunately, it will not stop the growing fault lines of inequality.

What would solve our dangerous inequity is an adequately funded, quality education system, accessible to everybody from age 3 to 23.

Education is the one proven way to create jobs, reduce unemployment and begin to close our wealth and opportunity fault lines.

For America, the 20th century was the pinnacle of our growth and of our world economic hegemony.

We may still be the world’s wealthiest country, but, far too few of us are sharing in the wealth.

Too much of the wealth is concentrated in too few.

Too much of our country’s wealth is derived from financial and marketplace manipulation – manipulation which almost destroyed our economic system in 2009 and which, inexplicably, still exists and threatens us today.

Forty years of relentless, unfettered industry consolidation and concentration of economic power on Wall Street has all but wiped out our critical local and regional Main Street economies.

Our nation’s Supreme Court, through its unconscionable Citizens United decision, handed control of our elections over to powerful interests and the wealthy elite. The result is unbelievable amounts of shadowy money being used to steal our elections.

This unprecedented consolidation of economic and political power is the root cause of today’s historical levels of inequity and underemployment. Over the centuries, this is precisely the type of inequity which brings governments down, especially democracies.

Indeed, very few democracies have lasted more than 200 years.

With the majority of our citizens no longer buying into the American Dream, we are on borrowed time.

When we fail to educate our children – we are destined for failure.

In Washington state we tolerate, at our own peril, a dysfunctional two-tier public education system.

Good for the wealthy and privileged – bad for everyone else.

Early Learning

Quality preschool is the basic foundation of a functional education system.

Yet, we Washingtonians have made it inaccessible to more than half of the eligible children in our state.

That’s 25,000 three- and four-year-olds whom each year we relegate to a bleak future and to being a heavy burden on our social costs – 25,000 of our babies kicked to the curb for a lifetime. Every year.


  • 58 percent of our eighth-graders are not proficient in math.
  • We fail to graduate almost one-quarter of our high school children.
  • Of the ones we do graduate, barely half enter college.
  • About 50 percent of them require expensive remedial classes because our K-12 system failed to adequately educate.

Do the math:

  • Only 75 percent of our kids graduate from high school
  • Only half of those, or 37 percent, enter college
  • Only half of them, or 18 percent, are actually college ready

In other words, our Washington state public school system has failed to properly prepare 82 percent of children for college and work.

This is a broken system.


In Washington state access to, and production of, baccalaureate degrees is among the worst in the nation – 46th worst to be precise.

We discourage students with unacceptable taxes – called tuition – as the Legislature tries to hide the terrible erosion of state funding.

One example of the funding crisis: Per capita, state funding at the University of Washington has dropped 62 percent since 1991.

With a broken education pipeline like this, it is easy to see why Washington state needs to be very concerned about its future.

This is a bleak picture.

The key question:

Is there hope?

Will America be able to renew itself and again become the land of opportunity?

The world history of democracies suggest not.

But, I am an eternal optimist.

I believe if we can find the will, we shall survive and endure, that Washington state can thrive by becoming the national model for a high quality, egalitarian, fully accessible, public education system.

My optimism for that future is in this room.

It is the hope that is in each of you receiving your degrees today.

With your enhanced knowledge and skills, each of you has the opportunity to go forth and build a very constructive personal and civic life.

America’s greatness has been its unique mix of individualism and our belief in community.

Our greatness begins with our respect for the individual. And, our belief that, as educated individuals grow and achieve, they become enlightened citizens and community-builders.

This foundation for our American citizenship is a three-legged platform upon which each of your individual success and wellbeing rests.

Those three legs are:

  • Self
  • Family
  • Community

When you think of building your life, think of constructing the three legs to support your personal foundation.

Your first leg is self.

Self is taking care of your own physical, mental and intellectual health. In your case, a major piece of your “self” leg is today’s degree. A degree which empowers you to pursue economic and intellectual satisfaction and security.

Your second foundation leg is family.

The definition of family today is broad and diverse.

However you define yours, this is the leg where you build healthy relationships and mutual support with those you care for and love.

Finally, your community leg.

The stronger your self and your family leg, the stronger your community leg.

Those of us who have benefited from America’s freedoms, its economic system and its educational system have an obligation to give back. We especially need to reach out to others who are being excluded from, or limited, in the benefits of being an American citizen and a Washington state resident.

Fulfilling your communal and civic obligation is what ultimately distinguishes you as an individual and us as a county. This is the foundation of our state’s and nation’s future.

Your citizenship obligation, at the most basic level, is recognizing how precious and rare self-government with our freedoms is, and then accepting your responsibility – to vote.

Not just voting in high-profile presidential elections, but in all elections you are qualified to vote in.

The other basic obligation, which you can insist on through your ballots and your activism, is that quality, accessible education is available to all of our citizens from pre-school to K-12 and through higher education – what we call at The Seattle Times “3 to 23.”

Throughout America’s history, there has been a steady expansion of available quality education. This made us the richest, most economically powerful and egalitarian country in the world.

For the first time, we are faced with a stultified public education system which is shrinking access to the American Dream. A system which is failing the majority of our citizens.

This is our historical moment of truth.

Do we stay on the current path and fade into historical obscurity?

Or do we step up and recreate what was once the world’s best and most accessible education system?

A step which would rejuvenate our country and ensure a bright future as we re-establish our once-lofty aspiration of opportunity and justice for all.

Congratulations on your degree. It is an exceptional accomplishment.

Use it wisely for yourself, your family and your community.

Work, vote, volunteer and play.

You give us hope and you inspire me.

Thank you.

Comments | Topics: Education, Frank Blethen


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