Washington State: A Tale of Two Halves

The state of Washington can be divided into two distinct regions: east of the Cascades and west of the Cascades. Going from one to the other, it is difficult to tell you are in the same state at all. When you pass from the lush conifer ridden hills of the west to the barren plains of the east, you may also notice that you enter an entirely different educational arena despite the same state-wide priority of providing ample education to all children.

The western half of the state is known for rainy skies and evergreen trees, for nature and for tech giants. Industry is booming. The economy is bulling. Property costs are skyrocketing. Education quality, as a result, is first class in these incorporated areas.

The eastern half of the state is known for scorching summers and icy winters, for orchards and vineyards, for farms and plains. The economy is stagnant. Wenatchee valley continues to produce apples, while Ellensburg continues to raise cattle. Education quality, as a result, is lagging.

Of the Top 25 school districts in Washington listed in the latest ratings by Niche, just six fall east of the mountains. Of those six, none break the top ten. Conversely, the list is topped with education quality powerhouses such as Bellevue, Mercer Island, and Lake Washington School Districts — the districts encompassing the Amazon, Expedia, and Microsoft headquarters. Though citing these ranked lists as fact can be problematic, the Niche ranking system is at least rooted in factual statistics. Proficiency scores, teacher-student ratios, and diversity are included in the calculation. The resulting difference in quality is made blatantly clear; education is best where the money is.

In Bellevue, Mercer Island, Redmond, and Kirkland, immigrants from all over the world are flooding in to fill jobs at tech giants. Their kids attend the area high schools and drive up the competition, raising the bar in many cases to “Ivy League or bust.” AP course offerings at these schools are vast and diverse, and the most qualified teachers in the Seattle area fill positions at these schools because the pay is far superior to anything east of the mountains. The median property value in the area pushes seven figures, providing copious property taxes to supplement education. Access to the finest technology, finest teachers, and finest facilities is the result.

In eastern Washington, the story is very different. A large population of impoverished Latino pickers and farm workers populates the schools. Dropout rates are higher, AP course offerings are less prevalent, and test scores are dismal. Compared to over 70% proficiency in the aforementioned western districts, some eastern districts have proficiency rates as low as 11%. The higher education institutions in the area are agriculture schools, which more often than not land students back in the same small towns whence they came.

Thus, the Cascade mountain range serves as more than merely a geographical divide in the middle of Washington state. It divides many of the haves from the have-nots. It divides the farmers from the software engineers. It divides the quality education from the lackluster education. Given these trends, it is easy to feel pessimistic about the state of access to equitable education in Washington.

However, access to equitable education is on the rise. With the latest budget passed by the state legislature (discussed in my prior post), reliance on local property taxes will be diminished and the state will maneuver to fully fund education in accordance with the constitution. Thus, struggling districts on both sides of the mountain will finally receive the funding and structural support for which they have yearned for decades. It is too early to determine if the new budget is in fact the solution to the east-west divide, but it is certainly an improvement. In a few years, the I-90 won’t be the only thing connecting the two sides of the state — equal access to quality education will too.