It was a big year in state politics for programs that serve students and children. Especially the youngest ones. 

The child care sector, which has struggled to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic, won a long-term financial boost through a new capital gains tax passed this legislative session, which concluded Sunday. Funded at more than $400 million over the next two years, a new law, the Fair Start Act, will require the state to expand access to early learning and child-care programs. The act will almost double the current number of state-funded preschool slots by 2026, advocates say. 

After years of pointing to a lack of affordable early learning and child care options for families in Washington state, this session brought “transformative” change, said Ryan Pricco, director of Policy and Advocacy for Child Care Aware WA. 

“The pandemic happened, and child care centers closed, and that had big implications for economic growth,” said Pricco. 

Almost all revenue from the capital gains tax, about $415 million in 2021-2023, will be spent on early learning and child care. And around $300 million in federal funding will be provided in the form of emergency relief aid to child care centers, many of which have been forced to close down or serve fewer kids because of health guidelines. 

“I haven’t had too many sessions where you walk away feeling like it’s pretty great,” said Joel Ryan, the executive director of the Washington state association of Head Start & ECEAP. 

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There was money for school-age children, too. Four billion more dollars for public schools, 75% of which is from federal relief funds, will help districts battling falling enrollment, technology costs and learning loss. While emergency assistance targeted at schools and families played a central role in this session, other big changes also emerged: higher education and K-12 institutions will start taking steps toward developing new faculty and staff training, specifically geared toward diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Here’s a roundup of some of the key policy and budget items: 

Senate Bill 5227: Diversity, equity and inclusion

This new policy requires all higher education institutions to provide their entire faculty and staff with professional development training focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism. A similar bill, Senate Bill 5044, also requires professional development training for K-12 teachers, staff, administrators and elected school leaders, including school board directors.

Under SB 5227, each program, which will be developed within the college or university, must be “rooted in eliminating structural racism” while improving academic, social and health outcomes for students, especially those from historically marginalized communities.

At least 80% of each school’s faculty and staff must complete the training every two years. The schools must also conduct a “campus climate assessment” at least every five years, which school leaders can use to inform the trainings. 

Trainings for faculty and staff will begin in the 2022-23 academic year, and beginning in the 2024-25 academic year, all students must also participate in the trainings. 

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Senate Bill 5228: Health equity

The University of Washington and Washington State University, which house the state’s two public medical schools, will be required to address cultural and racial differences in health care in their teachings. The legislation aims to prepare students to “understand and counteract racism and implicit bias in health care,” the legislation says. According to the state Department of Health, many communities in Washington face health inequities because of their race, culture, identity or where they live.

UW and WSU must develop a health equity curriculum by the start of 2023. Once the curriculum is in place, students must complete a course before they graduate. 

According to the bill, topics in the curriculum could include strategies for recognizing patterns of health care disparities, intercultural communication skills training, historical examples of medical and public health racism and implicit bias training. 

House Bill 1028: Teaching assessments 

This bill eliminates a standardized assessment for student teachers called the edTPA — the educative Teacher Performance Assessment — which all students must pass before they can receive their teaching certification. Critics of the test, which is administered by private education corporation Pearson, have said it’s expensive, too lengthy and unnecessary, given other state and national standards.

The bill instead focuses on adopting a different set of knowledge, skill and performance standards, which will be “evidence-based, measureable, meaningful and documented.”

Senate Bill 5030: Counseling programs

Each K-12 school district must develop and implement a plan for a comprehensive school counseling program by the start of the 2022-23 academic year. The program must be based on state and national counselor frameworks, and will provide a process for identifying student needs through data analysis.

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Because sometimes school counselors are assigned to other duties, like playground watch or data entry, the bill also mandates programs allocate at least 80% of counselors’ time to specific counseling work, including guiding students in academic opportunities, career planning or social-emotional learning. Another bill adds half a counselor position to every high-poverty school. 

Other key legislation hits issues from health and wellness to additional learning assistance in schools, such as one that directs all public and private schools to provide free menstrual hygiene products in bathrooms, one that expands access to affordable child care for postsecondary students and one that mandates schools fix or replace fixtures that leach lead into water sources. Another new policy pushes youth detention and treatment facilities to improve their education programs, in hopes of boosting the facilities’ graduation numbers and curbing recidivism rates. 

A few bills didn’t make it to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, including one that would have expanded eligibility for those applying to the Washington College Grant and another that would have allowed juniors and seniors to spend another year in high school, addressing learning losses and missed extracurricular opportunities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The K-12 budget 

The 2021-2023 state budget allocates $33 billion total to public schools, a mixture of federal and state dollars. That’s a $4 billion increase from the previous budget, most due to federal aid directed at school districts to help them recover from the pandemic. 

One of Legislators’ most pressing concerns for education spending was stabilizing school district finances, said Jake Vela, director of policy and research at the League of Education Voters. Most of the federal aid will have to be spent using a formula that awards the most money to districts with large numbers of students living in poverty. 

Using remaining federal dollars and state money, lawmakers also dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to creating one-time pots of funding to help districts not served by the federal funding formula and to help offset financial difficulties caused by enrollment losses, transportation and purchasing technology. 

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“Given what they were facing, they did a heck of a great job,” said Chris Reykdal, state superintendent. 

While the short-term view is positive,  the session was also a “huge missed opportunity” to make substantial changes to the state’s school funding model, said Joel Aune, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, which advocates on behalf of school leaders and superintendents. For more than a decade, the model has come under fire for funding too few nurse and school counselor positions. 

Many districts have chosen to split these positions across multiple schools, leaving many buildings without a full-time staff member in either of these roles, which have come under increased demand in light of the pandemic. Researchers from the University of Washington this year found there were 978 full-time school nurses in the 2019-2020 school year serving 2,000 public schools statewide. Those numbers suggest that many buildings don’t employ a nurse full-time.