Newly passed legislation shortens expulsions and requires school districts to help disciplined students keep up with studies, among other efforts aimed at improving education for minority kids.

Share story

Starting mid-June, Washington students who are suspended or expelled from school for noncriminal offenses may no longer be out for more than a semester. And while at home, each must have an opportunity to keep up with studies.

Those provisions are central to a bill passed by the Legislature on Thursday, hours before the session was scheduled to end. It now awaits the governor’s signature.

But some longtime education advocates suggested the law was merely a way for lawmakers to claim a victory for kids, without tackling the expensive school-funding requirements of the McCleary lawsuit, which looms over next year’s session.

Youth advocates have long noted that school discipline falls more heavily on black and Latino students, who are three times as likely to be suspended as whites or Asians.

In 2012, the legal-aid group TeamChild partnered with Washington Appleseed in a study showing that Washington students miss 70,000 days of school to suspension and expulsion annually, though whites are much more likely to get help keeping up with classwork.

Such differences are known as the “opportunity gap,” and attempts to address it have repeatedly failed to gain traction. In Olympia, forms of the bill, HB 1541, have been circulating for at least half a decade.

Each time it came up for discussion Sharonne Navas was watching, ready to testify.

“This was an acknowledgment that neither the bill nor the opportunity gap were going away,” said Navas, founder of the Equity in Education Coalition.

A key difference this year, said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, was the extensive reporting on school discipline and its damaging effects, recently published in The Seattle Times.

“This had been hovering for a while, but after your story ran we had more outcry from parents than ever before,” said Ortiz-Self, who co-sponsored the bill. “Communities were saying, ‘That’s enough, you can’t do this anymore. You can’t keep kicking kids out and not providing them an education.’ ”

The new law requires schools to develop re-engagement plans helping suspended and expelled kids return to school, as well as provide them an education while out — either online or through tutoring or alternative programs. Previously, students could be removed for a full year, with no oversight on whether they remained up-to-date on studies.

“This bill isn’t going to solve everything, but it’s a shift,” said Ortiz-Self. “It’s saying, just because you made a bad decision we’re not going to give up on you and say you no longer get an education in this state.”

The opportunity-gap provisions also call for more teachers of color, and demand better tracking of education outcomes for youth in juvenile facilities.

This laundry list of mandates brought an outcry from several legislators who hailed the general intent but worried that so many new rules would place impossible burdens on districts — without much additional funding.

The House allocated $1.24 million to cover these provisions, and the Senate nothing. Budget negotiations continue, though the policy changes regarding discipline will remain, regardless of the final budget.

“The unfunded mandates override the good parts,” said Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island.

Parents of disabled kids were even less enthusiastic. The new bill places distinct emphasis on racial inequities but has no language addressing the particular needs of special-education students.

By law, such students cannot be removed for any infraction resulting from their disability, though parents say this rule is routinely disregarded.

“You create a very slippery slope when you decide which kids you’re going to protect and which you are not,” said Lynne Tucker, a longtime advocate for special-needs youth.