By Reps. Joel McEntire and Jenny Graham
It is time for the Legislature to address the varied and unequal learning circumstances many Washington students face on a daily basis.
Looking at schools across the state has strengthened our resolve that Washington must do more to ensure basic thresholds of learning environments are met. However, we cannot rely on poor communities to bear this burden alone. All students in Washington deserve to have a quality learning environment regardless of their ZIP code.
Last session, we prime-sponsored legislation that would address capital needs in schools struggling to meet them. House Bill 1044 had strong, bipartisan support and the public hearing went well. The bill sailed through the House of Representatives unanimously and was sent to the Senate. Despite strong support in the other chamber, some senators wanted to tweak the bill. As a result, each chamber passed their own version of the proposal and the legislation stalled as an agreement could not be reached.
It was disappointing, but it just makes us want to work harder on this issue. A solution is needed; one that works in all corners of Washington state. Our goal with the legislation is to set a basic baseline standard for student facilities where none currently exists. In schools across the state, it is apparent some students have access to every academic privilege and luxury while others are crammed in crowded classrooms with bad lighting, poor ventilation, and questionable or unreliable HVAC systems.
The Washington state Constitution declares that education is the state’s paramount duty. Providing a quality education should also extend to capital expenditures, or school construction and building improvements. Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court recently ruled otherwise. While we cannot change their ruling, we can do what is right for students and pass legislation to ensure a quality learning environment for all.
Our plan would have provided funding for small school districts through a grant process based on need. School districts would have received a score based on certain criteria. The grant dollars would have gone to the school district whose score reflects the most immediate necessity. Projects eligible for grant funding would need to correct critical physical deficiencies such as modernizing, repairing, reconfiguring or replacing existing buildings and construction of new ones.
In stark contrast, Washington’s current model allows some communities easier access to the construction of quality school buildings while leaving other communities that have consistently failed to pass construction bonds behind.
While we are making good strides to provide capital funding for school districts that are in need, our legislation is a vital piece of continued bipartisan efforts to bring equality to the learning environment of each classroom. We know that schools in Washington are different from one another, but that doesn’t mean some students should be surrounded by a better, higher-quality learning environment than others. Our young people face many challenges today. A dilapidated school should not be one of them.
Getting House Bill 1044 across the finish line during the 2024 session and signed into law is one of our top priorities. Our goal is to ensure that regardless of where students go to school, they have a high-quality learning environment. This bipartisan effort to improve schools with structural or safety deficiencies is a must if we’re to ensure an adequate and equal learning environment for all Washington students.
Rep. Joel McEntire, R-Cathlamet, is the assistant ranking Republican on the House Education Committee. He also serves on the House Capital Budget and Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development committees. Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, is the assistant ranking Republican on the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee. She also serves on the Community Safety, Justice and Reentry and Health Care and Wellness committees.