Editor's note: The legislation described below died in the House this afternoon (March 7); here's the story.
The thing that separates hundreds of thousands of children from real life learning experiences in science, art, and history is not a new electronic gizmo. What is missing is the old-fashioned yellow school bus.
Money to pay for field trip transportation had dried up at most school districts in Washington even before the fury of the Great Recession took hold nearly three years ago. It’s a shame because Washington has hundreds of world-class educational cultural assets — large and small, rural and urban, passive and active — with doors wide open, ready to fire up the imaginations of K-12 students and enhance their educations.
Generations of adults can recall their first exposure to technology at the Pacific Science Center, or to biology at the Point Defiance Zoo, or to history at the Yakima Valley Museum. For many of them, those early experiences sparked a life-long intellectual curiosity about the world around them. For some, it led to careers in engineering, technology, and math — the fields that we so urgently need young scholars entering today.
Remarkably, many museums and other cultural venues throughout the state are more than willing to open their doors to students for free or for reduced admission fees. The problem is the public schools just don’t have the money to pay for buses to get them there.
Fortunately, legislators in Olympia — backed by parents, educators and business leaders — are on to a great idea that can ensure K-12 kids (and all citizens) have increased access to their community and regional cultural treasures. Legislators are proposing a measure, SHB 1837, that would allow local voters to decide if they want to create a special district to provide financial support to increase access to their education and cultural venues. Imagine the thousands more kids who would get a chance to visit the Everett Performing Arts Center or the Tacoma Glass Museum or Spokane’s Chase Gallery.
The proposed legislation goes beyond providing for student transportation by giving incentives so cultural organizations and public schools can collaborate as partners on curriculum and materials. Benefits would be scaled so schools with a higher percentage of students from lower-income families get additional support. Participating organizations would also expand low and no-cost access to all citizens.
There are lots of competing (and worthy) ideas in the state capitol and at city halls across the state. That said, an exciting feature of the culture district proposal, and one that makes it stand out among other proposals, is that the measure would actually generate way more revenue than it costs. Communities in other states around the country have created them during past recessions as economic development initiatives to maintain jobs and stimulate spending.
Science, arts, history, and other cultural activities provide a big boost to local economies. Patrons spend their money not only on admission tickets, but also on transportation, dining, lodging, and shopping. In the process, studies show, they generate $1.9 billion in business activity and more than $80 million a year in local and state taxes. An estimated 32,500 jobs in the Central Puget Sound region alone were related to those activities in 2009, according to a recent University of Washington study. Research also shows that having a strong cultural life gives regions a strategic advantage in an increasingly competitive global environment. Employees want to work for companies that are located in areas with interesting educational and entertaining activities.
In addition to helping kids and the economy, the legislation would also ensure a predictable revenue stream to participating educational and arts organizations. Ticket sales typically provide only about half of the revenue needed to fund operations. Grants and contributions make up the rest. Many organizations throughout the state are reeling from the recession which forces them to cut back employees, hours, and programs. Education and science districts are a way of keeping them on a solid financial footing.
Washington has great science, education, history, and arts organizations that enrich the lives of millions. Maintaining these resources, and expanding access to them by young and old alike, is an important public purpose and a sound investment. I suggest you call your local legislators and urge them to get on the “bus” by supporting science and education districts!