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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Westneat: What’s up with Wahkiakum?

Voters want something for nothing or have lost faith in institutions

By Danny Westneat
Published: March 26, 2023, 6:01am

When the tiny Wahkiakum School District and its attorney talk about their lawsuit against the state for more school funding, they use a slideshow with the theme “We Belong Together.”

Their premise is simple and heart-rending: Kids in poorer areas like theirs are forced to go to school in dilapidated buildings, second-class citizens in an inequitable, wealthy state.

“Abandoning WA students to learn in cold, leaky schools is disgraceful,” said a Seattle Times editorial on Wahkiakum last week. “For a state that purports to value education as its paramount duty, that is a scandal.”

It is a scandal. But by whom?

The lawsuit argues, convincingly to me, that tying school construction projects to local property taxes is unfair. It says the answer is for the state to pick up the tab.

“Local voters … have declined to pass facilities funding bonds every time but once in the past,” the Wahkiakum filing to the state Supreme Court says. Taxes for newer schools in Wahkiakum have failed seven out of the last eight times on the ballot, passing only in 2001.

But here’s the rub: Local voters in Wahkiakum aren’t supportive of state funding of schools, either. Nor do they seem interested in federal funding of schools — theirs or anybody else’s.

When the state was slashing school budgets during the last recession, lawmakers approved about $220 million of stopgap taxes on soda and candy as part of a package to “preserve funding for public schools, colleges, and universities.” When Big Soda then ran an initiative to cancel that school money, Wahkiakum voters, by 65 percent to 35 percent, sided with Big Soda.

Wahkiakum voters also backed a series of Tim Eyman measures to slash state taxes or cap spending. This year about 10 percent of the budget for Wahkiakum schools comes from the federal government. Last fall, though, voters there backed a candidate for Congress, MAGA Republican Joe Kent, who said this: “I would like to make a concerted effort to kill off the entire Department of Education.”

See the hang-up here? Wahkiakum voters haven’t supported local, state or federal financial help for schools. The district wants the state to pay, but if they win, does anybody believe voters there will pivot and start supporting the state in return? The money’s got to come from somewhere.

During the failed school bond campaign, the local paper, the Wahkiakum County Eagle, published letters like this: “I never voted for the dizzying taxes when I lived in LA, and I refuse to submit to this proposed thievery. Let the kids bus to Longview.”

This idea that taxes for government stuff are “thievery” is a rising populist ideology that extends far beyond this one county on the banks of the Columbia. Last month there were eight school bonds on the ballot around Washington. Seven failed. The vote out in Enumclaw was the worst in at least four decades, with 75 percent voting no.

“Should it cost me over $300 per month to educate someone else’s children?” a resident argued in the Enumclaw Courier-Herald. The writer acknowledged she had gone to Enumclaw schools — meaning previous generations paid to educate her.

Last year, voters in the county next to Wahkiakum, Pacific County, thrashed a school bond for the Ocean Beach district that included needed seismic upgrades. A local paper, the Chinook Observer, included this extraordinary justification for why 76 percent had voted no: The vote “reflected a quite accurate assessment that students are in school only about 15 percent of the time,” the paper noted. “When a subduction zone earthquake happens, there is only about a one-in-six chance that children will be at school.”

Good news, kids, the odds are on your side. Seriously what’s happening here is worse than a tilted system for school bonds. That’s bad, but fixable. This seems like a fraying — maybe a complete ripping apart — of the social compact.

Voters either want something for nothing, or they no longer have faith enough in even the most bedrock government institutions to go along with them at all. Wahkiakum is arguing in court that “We Belong Together,” while at the same time its voters say no to most any government support for schools. Not sure democracy can function with that level of nihilism.

As for the school financing unfairness, a possible remedy for that is progressive taxation. A state income tax, or its cousin, the capital gains tax, would be fairer systems of taxing the haves. Then the money can be distributed to the have-not places that need it most, like Wahkiakum.

Kids of Wahkiakum, you do deserve better than this. It’s not your fault, and it is disgraceful. You might ask some of the adults around town about it.