Over the course of two days, Washington State Board of Education members set legislative priorities, examined the gaps and gains in school districts’ compliance with educational mandates, and heard new arguments in support of and opposition to the adoption of a statewide ethnic studies graduation requirement.  

The 16-member board, which meets about six times a year, is charged with advocacy and oversight of Washington’s education system.

Members got a look at how well some districts are doing in adopting state-mandated activities and programs. Among the 254 school districts that submitted data by Oct. 18, most have successfully implemented plans for offering 12th graders a financial advising day, and programs for students to study the Washington and U.S. constitutions. 

A tally of 119 districts have yet to adopt a “Tribal History and Culture Curriculum.” More than half the reporting districts, 136, are ahead of the game in implementing a comprehensive sexual health education program; the rest of the districts must comply no later than the 2022-23 school year. 

Dozens of school districts — including the state’s largest, Seattle Public Schools — have yet to turn in their reports updating the board on their compliance with these requirements, along with other yearly basic education practices like time spent on learning and graduation requirements. Districts will be notified to turn in their surveys this month. Board members plan to revisit the reports at their December meeting, during which they can recommend actions like asking the state superintendent to withhold funding from schools until these requirements are met.

The budget requests include $236,000 for fiscal 2023 and $230,000 annually for outreach efforts, including hiring an engagement coordinator. A request for $100,000 in fiscal 2023 and $25,000 in fiscal 2024 will be made to study where school climate and safety improvements are needed in school districts and to submit a report on recommendations for a statewide approach to addressing these concerns. 

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“For me, this is a very exciting time to be in K-12 education — a difficult time, yes — but I think there’s opportunity and I think that COVID has shone a spotlight on some of the things that weren’t working prior to COVID,” said board chair Bill Kallappa II, of Tumwater. “And when I say that, I mean for students of color, foster care kids, special education kids,” he said. 

Kallappa said new programs and supports offered in the fields of mastery-based learning and social-emotional learning help. But he said the latter is “something that should have been in place 30 years ago,” which is why the board wants to adjust the school funding model to invest in more social emotional health and safety staff for schools as a legislative priority. 

The board spent most of the meeting listening to presentations focused on equity and inclusion in school staffing, instruction, curriculum and school materials. In a public comment period before a presentation by the state Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee, board officials heard concerns from students and teachers that the proposed ethnic studies framework and materials do not do enough to address antisemitism. Two speakers identifying themselves as parents said they feel suggested language in the framework could be divisive. One speaker characterized ethnic studies as an introduction to critical race theory in schools. 

Board members went through a series of trainings with ethnic studies educators this summer and Kallappa said that while the board is still considering the adoption of an ethnic studies graduation requirement, “it’s not something that we want to throw together quickly and hope that it works.” 

Board Executive Director Randy Spaulding said building “local intention” and community support for the curriculum “is going to take time and different kinds of resources to do this well.” 

As indicated in the data for other mandated curricula and the number of districts that still lack a tribal history program, Kallappa said, “the system’s not ready right now.” He said professional development programs and staffing are necessary to establish before instruction. “But we’re at a good starting point,” he said.