Closing the Digital Divide: Washington’s Paramount Duty to Fund Educational Technology

By: Alec Dugan

“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.” Those 34 words of Article IX, Section 1 of the Washington Constitution are the foundation of our state’s guarantee to K-12 education. School funding has been a longstanding issue for the state legislature, but in the years since the Washington State Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, the state has increased funding to meet its constitutional obligation. However, COVID-19 continues to ravage communities, and the state may still be falling short of its paramount duty to provide education for the children of Washington. As schools have shut down and shifted online, the economic and racial disparities in our state’s education system are more apparent than ever. Technology is no longer a luxury for wealthy districts but an essential component of basic education. It is therefore the duty of the state, not the districts, to fund educational technology.

Washington’s Paramount Duty

Although Washington’s “paramount duty” clause can be traced back to the state’s founding in 1889, it did not come to the forefront of state politics until the mid-1970s. In Seattle School District v. State, the Washington State Supreme Court interpreted the “paramount duty” clause to create an absolute right for the children of Washington to receive an “amply funded education.” Importantly, this right is to be funded by the state, not by the local school districts. Since then, education funding has remained a difficult topic in Washington politics. The Washington Supreme Court recently found in McCleary that the state had again failed its duty to amply fund public education when it defined basic education in a 2009 education reform bill but continued to rely on local levies for funding. Although the court ruled in 2018 that the state had finally met its obligation to fund public schools, educators have continued to project budget shortfalls.

That was before the pandemic, and the most recent estimates project state revenue will be $3.3 billion less over the next four years than it would have been without the pandemic. While experts predict that education expenditures are unlikely to backslide due to their constitutional necessity, legislators expect there to be little increase in future spending. This may have been acceptable before the pandemic, The Washington State Supreme Court approved the legislature’s funding plan, but the pandemic has changed the way we teach. Although schools have begun to return to in-person learning, a future of education predicated on technology and remote instruction challenges the adequacy of present funding.

In the Shadow of the Pandemic

The gap in access to computers and the internet, the “digital divide,” has only become more important during the pandemic. A recent survey found that 64% of districts with a large number of low-income students expected technology access to be a major issue, compared to only 21% of districts with a small number of low-income students. As for racial disparities, a study of parents with children in remote learning found that 15.6% of black parents reported inadequate access to technology compared to 8% of white parents. Making matters worse, disadvantaged students are more likely than others to be in remote learning.

To remedy this problem, school districts and the state have purchased computers and subsidized internet for students, with much of the money coming from federal stimulus funds. In addition, Governor Jay Inslee has proposed spending $79 million in the 2021-23 budget to support residential access to the internet, but there is no guarantee the legislature will adopt the governor’s proposal, and the federal funds are only temporary. Still, the pandemic is expected to have a long-lasting effect on our educational system. In particular, the adoption of education technology has exploded since the start of the pandemic, with Washington-based company Blackboard reporting a 3,600% increase in users of its ‘Collaborate’ virtual classroom tool in March 2020. With so many students becoming accustomed to eLearning, technology will play a vital role in the future of K-12 education.

Still, access to technology remains disparate between school districts. After the McCleary decision, the state capped local levy collection in a so-called ‘levy swap,’ increasing state property taxes that fund basic education while reducing voter-approved levies. Beginning in 2019, local school levies could only be used for “enrichment,” not the funding of basic education. Despite a 2018 adoption of educational technology standards by the state Superintendent, one of the more popular “enrichment” items has been technology. In a 2018 editorial, 15 of 24 King and Snohomish county districts surveyed by The Seattle Times had technology levies on the ballot. Although the state funding formula incorporates technology as a component of the per-student allocation, at roughly $165 per-student it would seem as though the state has fallen back to its old ways of identifying basic educational needs and relying on school districts to fund them.

In a post-pandemic world technology plays a much larger role in education than merely enrichment. When schools return to in-person instruction we can likely expect some of the changes made during the pandemic, like online homework submission, to be retained. In such a technology-dependent society, simply providing printed alternatives is not a sufficient substitute. This is particularly true when at the heart of McCleary was the goal to reduce educational inequity. While the minimum technological requirement is unclear, the state cannot rely on local districts to bridge the divide. Rather, it has become the obligation of the state to fund educational technology as part of basic education. In doing so, the state may move closer to upholding its paramount duty to provide for basic education to all children of Washington, not just those who can afford it.

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