Marathon negotiating sessions in Olympia this year resulted in sound investments to strengthen Washington’s public education backbone, from career and technical education, to teacher training, to highly capable and special-education programs. All told, legislators came up with $7.3 billion in new state school funding, which will reach K-12 students across the spectrum of needs.
In the grand scheme, one particular $3 million line item might go overlooked. But it should be celebrated for giving students a safer school environment, granting parents a little peace of mind and putting some teeth into an unenforced state mandate.
The budget agreement signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on June 30 includes $3 million to test for lead in public school drinking water supplies and to screen for kids at heightened risk of elevated lead levels in their blood.
While that’s only about half what Inslee sought in his proposed budget, it’s a welcome and overdue expenditure at a time when many Washington school districts can’t guarantee water quality. An Associated Press survey last year found that of the 174 responding districts, nearly 40 percent said they didn’t test their faucets and drinking fountains for lead.
Meanwhile, even large districts that do have testing regimens can face unexpected and daunting costs. A year ago, Tacoma Public Schools spent an estimated $200,000 to test 6,520 water fixtures and replace at least 360 of them in a search for possible lead contamination.
The district-wide sweep happened after the revelation of overlooked test results from 2015, which registered off-the-charts lead readings at a couple of Tacoma elementary schools. It triggered a mini-panic in the community, a temporary switch to bottled water in some classrooms and fresh attention to water testing standards at both the local and state level.
It turns out the Department of Health had adopted regulations in 2009. They established protocols for routine testing (more frequent for elementary schools, because youngsters are most vulnerable to lead exposure), corrective measures and notification of affected parties.
Testing, responding and reporting seems pretty straightforward, right? Except, the rules lay dormant for the next eight years because state lawmakers, unfathomably, didn’t budget money for schools to enforce them.
That will change now, thanks to the better-late-than-never efforts of the 2017 Legislature.
The $3 million won’t be enough to help all 295 school districts; it will properly target oldest schools first.
And make no mistake: American children face greater lead exposure from peeling paint used in homes before 1978 than they do from drinking water. In the Tacoma area, there’s the added specter of lead residue buried in the soil, years after the closure and remediation of the Asarco smelter.
But we believe elected leaders have now gone on record that a safe school environment with untainted drinking water is part of a state “basic education” that they’re morally, if not constitutionally, obliged to pay for.
Incidentally, the Legislature this year also agreed to stop exempting bottled water from sales tax collections. Closing that loophole is expected to generate $57 million in state revenue over the next two years.
To use a fraction of those extra funds to ensure Washington school kids can slurp mouthfuls of crisp, clean water straight from the tap seems thoroughly fitting.