Studies have repeatedly linked the physical learning environment of students to their success. But thousands of Washington public school students are stuck in outdated, inadequate, and potentially dangerous school buildings.
That’s because Washington’s public school districts must rely primarily on locally approved building bonds to repair or replace dilapidated buildings, upgrade schools for earthquake safety, or add classrooms and facilities. modern laboratories. Heads of schools in the Wahkiakum school district will not tolerate it. They filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the project violates the state’s constitution.
Whatever the outcome of the tribunal, lawmakers should address this long-standing problem, which perpetuates educational inequalities. Some students have access to cutting edge learning environments while others are left behind.
Ten years ago, the Washington Supreme Court McCleary’s landmark decision found that the state had failed in its constitutional duty to provide sufficient basic education for all children in the state. This move led to an unprecedented state investment in public education, but failed to meet the capital needs of schools.
As attorneys for the Wahkiakum school district written in the complaint filed in Wahkiakum County Superior Court last week, “Requiring that an element of education funding be approved by the local voters of a school district makes the funding of that element dependent on the whim of the voters in the district.” instead of the educational needs of students in the district.
This reliance on local funding makes it difficult, if not impossible, for small rural districts like Wahkiakum, which has fewer than 500 students, to raise funds for needed school improvements, says lawyer Thomas Ahearne, who represents the Southwestern Washington District and was senior counsel in the McCleary lawsuit. It also unfairly weighs on taxpayers in those districts, who must pay much higher property tax rates than those living in districts with higher property values to fund similar school infrastructure needs.
On Mercer Island, for example, where per capita income is around $ 90,000, homeowners would pay just 12 cents per $ 1,000 of valuation to fund $ 30 million in facility upgrades, according to reports. court documents. In Wahkiakum, where the average per capita income is $ 29,000 and more than half of the students in the district come from low-income households, homeowners would pay almost $ 4 per $ 1,000 of assessment to collect the same amount. .
Not surprisingly, the Mercer Island School District has been able to fund school improvements on several occasions, unlike Wahkiakum.
The Mercer Island High School building, for example, has undergone several significant additions and renovations since its construction in 1954, according to the district. These updates include a complete makeover from 1997 and the addition of new science and robotics labs, a musical wing, and other classrooms and bathrooms in 2014-15.
On the other hand, the Wahkiakum high school did not undergo any major renovation since its opening in 1964. The building does not meet seismic safety standards. The electrical system is outdated and the lab facilities are unsafe, Wahkiakum District Superintendent Brent Freeman told Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro. Yet voters categorically rejected the bond proposals to modernize the high school building, most recently in 2020.
The correlation between building quality and student success has been repeatedly confirmed by research. In 2014, Catherine E. Lhamon, then Deputy Secretary of the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office, summed up the findings, writing: “Structurally healthy and well-maintained schools can help students feel supported and valued. Students are generally better able to learn and stay engaged in teaching, and teachers are better able to do their jobs, in well-maintained, well-lit, clean, spacious, heated and air-conditioned classrooms as appropriate. needs. In contrast, when classrooms are too hot, too cold, overcrowded, filled with dust or poorly ventilated, students and teachers alike suffer.
Relying on local funding for critical school infrastructure exacerbates educational disparities by ensuring that some students experience the benefits of modern learning environments while others struggle to thrive. Lawmakers must find a broad and fair way to fund construction and renovation to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed.