State lawmakers answered the challenge of pumping billions into K-12. Now the Legislature must focus on the quality of the reforms and, most important, the outcomes.
When the Legislature convenes in a little more than a month, lawmakers must keep a laser focus on the quality of Washington’s education system, not just on how they fund public schools, as mandated by the state Supreme Court.
In its Nov. 15 McCleary ruling, the court agreed that lawmakers had adequately boosted state funding for K-12 schools, but missed the deadline by a year for implementing those changes. In the upcoming 60-day legislative session, the challenge is to fund an additional $1 billion by the fall 2018 deadline they set themselves.
As lawmakers continue to debate school funding, here are six goals to focus the conversation and insure the best outcomes for students:
• Graduation rates
The bad news: Too many students still drop out of high school, and far too few go on to graduate from college. In a vibrant economy, fueled by high-tech, trade and innovation, this is disgraceful.
It’s true that, statewide, graduation rates are trending higher and some districts have shown significant improvement. Lawmakers need to look to the districts and educators that are incorporating innovative policies that can make a profound difference in a young person’s life.
What works? Outreach to families before a student spins out, discipline policies that keep students in school, advanced coursework to challenge and prepare all students for higher education, and enhanced career planning.
These policies work when school districts have the funding and flexibility to be proactive. Lawmakers should support policies that have demonstrated effectiveness in districts such as Spokane, Tacoma and Highline, where graduation rates have climbed.
• Closing the achievement gap
All students, regardless of race or ZIP code, must be advancing toward high-school graduation, college, or advanced technical or vocational training. Lawmakers must continue to find ways to invest and challenge struggling school districts to ensure all students succeed.
Allow incentives to attract the best teachers where they are most needed, similar to the extra bonus for nationally board certified teachers who work in low-income schools.
Continue to support districts to provide tutors, school counselors, attendance coaches and “wraparound services” for needy students.
The goal, always, is to ensure students are college and career ready by maintaining a 24-credit diploma and a meaningful assessment system.
• Classroom construction
Some lawmakers question whether school building costs are part of the basic education mandates in the McCleary rulings. That’s a distraction. School districts need more classroom space to offer all-day kindergarten and to decrease teacher-student ratios in the early grades — ordered by the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers should pass the hijacked capital budget as quickly as possible to free up $1 billion in school-building funds earmarked earlier this year.
State construction dollars are essential to rural and urban districts alike, and more funding will be needed. To help with this heavy lift, lawmakers should make it easier for voters to approve school construction bonds by changing the state Constitution to require a simple majority vote, instead of 60 percent to pass.
• Fully embrace early learning
Although preschool is not considered part of the legal definition of basic education, it’s a significant tool for closing the achievement gap between children of different ethnic and economic groups. Quality early learning for low-income children is the key to making sure they start kindergarten ready to learn at the same level as more affluent classmates. The Legislature has added money to the budget each year for more state preschool slots for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds and should continue to do so.
• Don’t cut college funding
As economic storm clouds swirl on the horizon, it’s important to remember that during the last recession the Legislature used higher education as the state’s rainy day fund. College students and their parents dealt with double-digit tuition increases several years in a row to help balance the state budget. That was the wrong approach and should not be repeated.
• Fix unintended consequences
The 2017 Legislature jammed through a $43.7 billion two-year budget in June at the end of a third special session, so no one should be surprised that some of the education funding formulas aren’t working as intended. Greater transparency on district spending and legislative investment is essential, including funding for special education.
This is just a start. Lawmakers deserve credit for making significant progress on improving Washington’s education system, from preschool through college. Now is not the time to flinch. The work continues.