What Microsoft thinks Washington state lawmakers got right last session — and what they should prioritize now

Microsoft President Brad Smith at the company’s 2016 annual meeting. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Microsoft wants the Washington state legislature to prioritize STEM education, criminal justice reform, workplace equity, cloud computing for the public good, and the Cascadia Innovation Corridor.

The company’s president and legal chief, Brad Smith, outlined those goals in a blog post Friday, reflecting on the successes and failures of the legislative session that just closed.

He applauded Olympia for finally resolving the McCleary issue, a state Supreme Court ruling that said K-12 public schools were unlawfully underfunded. The debate over how to fund schools took up most of the air in the room, however, and Smith is ready for the legislature to tackle other issues facing our state now that McCleary is resolved.

“Unfortunately, the amount of time and energy that went into the McCleary deliberations meant that some other key workforce training issues were left undone,” Smith writes. “One such area was in career-connected learning. We believe better bridges between classroom and career can be a potential game-changer in creating new job opportunities for young people.”

Smith announced he will join a new public-private Career-Connected Learning Task Force as co-chair to develop strategies to educate the state’s young people for high-demand jobs.

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Counsel Brad Smith. (GeekWire File Photo)

During the last legislative session, Microsoft supported Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal for a $12 million public-private partnership intended to provide “career-connected” training opportunities to 100,000 young people. That initiative wasn’t funded this session but Microsoft hopes that it will be in the 2018 supplemental budget, according to Smith’s blog post.

In addition to career-connected training, Microsoft is advocating for increased state spending on higher education “with a special emphasis on STEM degree capacity at our state’s colleges and universities, especially at the University of Washington’s world-class Computer Science and Engineering school,” Smith writes.

Smith served as the chair of the initiative to raise over $100 million in private and public funding for the UW’s new CSE building. That campaign drew big donations from individuals, like Paul Allen and Charles Simonyi, and companies like MicrosoftAmazonGoogle, and Zillow.

“We can only hope that the legislature will do more in 2018 than it did this year to help Washington’s own residents earn the degrees that will enable them to fill the jobs our state’s companies are growing,” Smith writes.

Microsoft has long been advocating for education reforms to train young people in its home state for the jobs of the future. It’s a natural fit for one of the biggest software companies in the world.

But recently, Microsoft’s corporate citizenship work has expanded to areas with a less obvious connection. The company is focusing some of its philanthropic efforts on criminal justice reform.

Microsoft supported a $1.2 million funding plan for the state’s Criminal Justice Training Center, which legislators approved this session. The facility is intended “to improve situational de-escalation capabilities and build stronger trust between law enforcement and communities,” according to Smith.

As part of that initiative, Microsoft is pledging $400,000 over the next two years to pilot a new curriculum to “build a culture of modern, evidence-based approaches to the reduction of crime and recidivism, with an emphasis on procedural justice and fairness in outcomes through the interruption of implicit bias and the restoration of community trust.”

Smith commended the legislature for passing a bill that allows people incarcerated in correctional facilities to pursue associate degrees.

“With that authorization now established, we at Microsoft will engage with corrections officials to determine how our technology expertise and philanthropic resources can help in offering digital literacy and coding training to some inmates in the corrections system setting,” writes Smith.

Digital equity among people of color and women was a theme throughout Smith’s blog post. He also applauded lawmakers for passing a state-wide paid leave policy, with input from all stakeholders.

“When other issues like minimum wage have been addressed through ballot measures that may not have the input of all stakeholders, it’s encouraging to see the concerted effort of all parties result in a negotiated solution on the family leave issue,” he writes.

Microsoft also continues to advocate for the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, a push for greater collaboration between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., which are less than 150 miles apart.

“When the best minds in our region work together on research, economic development, and transportation, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor will drive greater connectivity, productivity and innovation for the nearly 12 million people living in British Columbia and Washington state,” he writes.

Finally, Smith stressed the power of cloud computing to benefit the public good in Washington and abroad. The region is uniquely positioned to offer cloud solutions, as home to cloud computing giants Microsoft and Amazon.

Smith said one application for the cloud could be providing business opportunities to the state’s rural residents. But that can only happen if people living in those communities have access to high-speed internet.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced a plan to work with the government to help connect rural Americans to high-speed internet. Microsoft is partnering with telecom companies across 12 states to deliver broadband to those communities.

“While we believe the private sector can play the leading role in closing the rural broadband gap, the public sector also has a vital role to play, including the investment of matching funds to support capital equipment projects,” Smith writes. “Today, 11 states have earmarked funds to extend broadband service to their rural citizens. We hope state lawmakers will consider similar measures to ensure all Washingtonians, no matter where they live, can prosper from our state’s vibrant digital economy.”