The day after Gov. Jay Inslee nudged Washington’s school districts to reopen their buildings, he asked lawmakers for $400 million to mitigate what’s become known as learning loss — despite not knowing how much students have fallen behind.
As part of his 2021-23 budget request, Inslee said he will use that money to “address learning loss due to the pandemic and increase equitable student supports so all students can get back on track and achieve their full potential.”
Specifically, that means expanding tutoring and enrichment programs. The money, the budget documents said, could pay for school districts to add more instructional time before or after the school day, or expand learning to include some time during the summer.
Inslee is also asking for $79 million to support residential broadband connections so that more families can engage with online learning. In addition, he’s asking for $32 million to boost elementary school counselors, an acknowledgment of the additional struggle the state’s youngest students are facing.
He presented these ideas as part of his bigger proposal for helping Washington recover from the COVID-19 crisis. The total 2019-2021 education budget was $27.2 billion; the 2021-2023 education ask is for $28.6 billion. The budget didn’t say much about what districts can expect in their financial future as they face enrollment declines. Because of those decreases — and the fact that students didn’t need transportation when schools closed — the budget documents noted that projected education funding needs fell by about $831 million.
“Our educators have been working so hard in this remote learning environment,” Inslee said at a Thursday press conference. “They have been incredibly innovative and amazingly dedicated to their students. But we have to realize that this situation has created challenges, that many students have had a learning loss because of this pandemic.”
There’s little specific information about how Washington students are doing in school this year. Last school year, because of the pandemic, there was a nationwide pause on standardized testing. Before schools resumed this year, the state asked districts to use any universal assessment to determine how students are doing. The state did not ask districts for their results.
So to get a feel for what schools would have to contend with, Inslee turned to Challenge Seattle, a group that represents 20 Seattle-area business leaders and the Washington Roundtable, a statewide business group. The organizations — as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ballmer Group, and Jeff and Tricia Raikes — funded and commissioned a report on student learning from Boston Consulting Group.
The report relied on national research, case studies of school systems that had shut down and interviews with educators, students and other Washington stakeholders. The report’s summary cited estimates that students lost half a year of math material and 30% of a year in reading amid the shutdown; the learning disruptions could cost students $14 trillion in future earnings, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report.
The report also acknowledged the uneven effects of the pandemic: It cited a national survey that estimated that a majority of low-income districts saw half of their students attending 50% of the time or less. And according to a Common Sense Media poll, Black, Latino or Indigenous students were twice as likely to lack digital access as their peers.
To stop learning loss, the report recommended an emphasis on connectivity and engagement and a quick return to in-person learning — with safety measures. Once students are back in school, the report said, districts should work to understand where students are in their learning, create individualized learning plans, and try to catch them back up through multiple strategies, including the soliciting of volunteer tutoring.
The report stopped short of saying who or how would be in charge of making sure that actually happens across Washington’s school districts.
“The ideas that they have offered up to be considered are not new. They’ve been around,” said former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who leads Challenge Seattle. “They’ve maybe, in some instances, not been as effective as they should be, not done to the degree (necessary) by any stretch of the imagination.”
When asked, she said it’s on the governor, the state superintendent and individual school districts, parents and community members to make sure this actually happens. “I don’t see there’s an easy quick guarantee way,” she said. “We’re going to have to refuse to fail.”
Parents will play a big role, said Brian Jeffries, policy director for the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable. “We are in a different moment, and we are in a different time,” he said, pointing to the Black Lives Matter protests. “We think messages pre-COVID around resources going to students who are further from opportunity was jargon and phrasing and platitudes to a too large extent.”
In this moment, he described “a higher pressure point on returning not to the new normal” but to “transform and reimagine public education.”
The budget proposal reflects Inslee’s ideas; ultimately, the legislature sets the state budget.
One legislator noted that the proposal doesn’t provide relief for school districts who might face financial problems due to drops in enrollment.
“Our budget is pretty well balanced on paper, but that’s largely because the maintenance level forecast is assuming that we don’t do anything about solving the problem that districts have right now with their loss of enrollment,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle.) “Our highest priority is likely going to be making sure that they don’t financially crumble.”
The state’s September enrollment numbers showed a 2.82% dip overall, with 14% of the decreases concentrated in kindergarten. Pedersen said he’s worried that if school districts have less money because of their enrollment, they might have fewer teachers at a time when the system could see an influx of kindergartners or first graders.
“If we don’t do something, they’re going to have this huge squeeze,” he said. “I don’t mean to minimize the importance of making up for the learning loss, but it’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: You’re going to have to staunch the bleeding first before making up for lost ground.”
Marguerite Roza, a Seattle-based education finance policy professor at Georgetown University, similarly noticed a lack of direction for districts trying to plan their budgets. “I see nothing in here that alerts districts to any real changes like you’re getting more money, you’re getting less money, your formula is going to be adjusted in this way or that,” she said. “It doesn’t really signal to our biggest state-funded infrastructure what the big picture is. The reason that matters: The districts won’t hear that, and they need to plan ahead.”
Some of Inslee’s learning loss remedies might depend on districts’ renegotiating contracts with teachers unions — but the leader of the state teachers union did not support the budget proposal.
“The governor’s budget falls short of the already inadequate status quo by not adjusting the funding formulae for enrollment and transportation,” Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, said in a statement. “It falls short of the status quo and continues to hurt the students who need the most help. Even in the new school year, districts will need additional resources.”
Inslee’s proposal also includes a request for help for the ailing child care sector, in the form of a $29 million, four-year health care insurance premium sponsorship for child care employees who work in licensed centers. He also asked for $9 million to expand broadband access for licensed child care centers, and $64 million to expand state-subsidized child care access for low-income families. That money would reduce monthly co-payments by half for 8,600 families through the Working Connects Child Care program; the program’s income limit would increase by 10%, allowing 4,900 more people to participate.
He is also requesting $23 million to expand career-connected learning, including the creation of a new pre-apprenticeship program for high school students in Federal Way, and a new marketing campaign to make sure students and families know about them.
His budget also includes requests for $3.1 million more to support the special education safety net, $75,000 for a special education family liaison and $4 million in climate science education.