COVID-19 and Washington’s Paramount Duty
July 10, 2020 • 4 min read
"It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex."
Article IX, Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution
Sending children, teachers, and staff back to schools before the pandemic is under control is a recipe for disaster and further spikes in infection rates. There is no real way to keep class sizes safe and provide an equitable education for every student. Some districts share a proposal to cut class sizes and divide the week up amongst groups of students. While this solves the social distancing problem, it only increases existing inequities in education. Wealthier districts that can afford larger buildings (or additional temporary structures) will meet the demand, while districts with smaller budgets will not.
The state itself knows that there is no safe way to allow people into a confined space during a pandemic. This unsafe practice is evidenced through many state agency announcements, including one from the State Superintendent of Public Instruction that the OSPI offices are closed, and that management and staff are working remotely. State workers are planning on working remotely through the remainder of 2020, if not through 2021.
If it isn’t safe for the people who oversee public education to go to their own state offices, how is it possible for hundreds of thousands of students and teachers to safely return to classrooms? How will teachers convince classes full of children to follow social distancing and mask protocols? How will parents with young children return to work without childcare? It simply isn’t possible.
Our equitable education proposal
We need immediate emergency education relief.
We must first address this crisis with emergency mandates for broadband internet access and laptops for every student, provided by emergency declarations for subsidizing or mandating access to public services for every student household. We can provide this via various methods, including providing access to state-owned networks or directly subsidizing consumer-grade service providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. Providing low-cost, basic laptops (“netbooks” or similar) for live video and cloud-based digital document tools and storage is the key to enabling quality learning. We have the legal, financial, and technological capabilities; we merely need the political will.
We need a plan for a safe return to the classroom.
We must create a plan for an eventual safe return to the classroom for students, teachers, and staff. This plan should involve all stakeholders, including teachers, teachers unions, epidemiologists and public health experts, and parents. While previously speculated that children are not affected, recent stories have shown this to be an incorrect assumption. Rushing people back into crowded classrooms will be a potentially fatal error. We must guarantee that there is a reasonable timeline in place that all parties can agree is safe.
We need a working-class bailout.
No amount of resources for students and planning an eventual return will succeed if families are struggling to provide a stable and healthy learning environment. We must provide financial relief for all working families and those who have lost their jobs. We do this by extending unemployment and SNAP/FAP benefits and enacting rent and mortgage forgiveness through 2020. Equally important is funding for pre-K and foster care and all other child care services via our state’s financial reserves. The legislature must immediately enact emergency provisions to allow the most profitable businesses in our state to begin to pay their fair share.
Governor Jay Inslee must declare a special legislative session to enact these measures. By the time the legislature reconvenes in January 2021, this crisis will only be magnitudes worse. The time to act is now; cuts to funding for children and families are not an option.
Keeping education funded through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond
For decades, Washington State—one of the only states with a constitutional requirement to fund K-12 education for every child—has failed to do so. Now, in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic and no end in sight, our state faces billions in budget shortfalls.
Financial experts and state officials agree that we’ll be seeing cuts to state programs and services more significant than those seen during the great recession. Luckily, Medicaid expansion and K-12 education are (mostly) off the table. However, this does not mean that the looming education crisis is averted.
Many other state programs and services impact children and young adults throughout their lives and are directly related to their ability to learn. For example, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, which runs the state’s pre-K and foster care programs, was tasked with finding $155 million in cuts for the coming year. While this isn’t a cut to K-12 education, it will directly affect it for years to come. Shouldn’t these programs be immune to budget cuts as well?
The state legislature is known for playing budget games. Avoiding direct cuts to K-12 funding by opting for cuts to adjacent programs or placing more funding burdens on local districts—in essence, a de-facto cut to K-12 funding while refusing to make cuts elsewhere—results in a “kicking the can down the road” approach to education funding. Schools see massive revenue shortfalls and must make tough decisions regarding the quality and equity of education for every child in their district.
In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in McCleary v. Washington that the legislature was not meeting the constitutional obligation to fully fund education, and in 2015 imposed a $100,000 per day fine. Finally, in 2018, the state legislature voted for a funding package to meet the obligation. Unfortunately, while the state increased funding for school districts, it imposed limits on local funding levies, resulting in some communities like Spokane cutting 8% of their staff.
Traditional taxes are not a near-term solution to the current budget shortfalls. For one, they take years to implement. And as many know, the most apparent revenue source would be what is currently allowed under the state constitution: regressive property taxes. But tying local property values to the funding received by school districts leads to disparity and inequity in education. Wealthy suburbs see large funding pools, while urban lower-income areas see very little.
Long term, we must resolve our funding issues by moving to a state income and wealth tax, and ending the tax loopholes and “incentives” for large businesses like Amazon and Boeing. Such policies have already been enacted in cities like Seattle, which recently passed a tax on the largest businesses with salaries far above the median income level. Expanding this to a state-wide level is the next logical step to guarantee education funding through both the current crisis and beyond.