The McCleary case may be heading toward conclusion, but that doesn’t mean Washington’s education-reform work is finished.
The Washington Supreme Court is expected to rule within the next few months whether the work mandated by its 2012 McCleary decision is complete. Even if the landmark school funding lawsuit becomes part of state history, the job of ensuring all Washington students get a high-quality education, no matter where they live, is far from finished.
The Legislature has made impressive progress improving Washington public schools and putting more money into the system. But the attorney general’s office acknowledges in its briefing to the court that the work must continue.
“In its 2012 decision, the court noted that the state’s program of basic education is ‘not etched in constitutional stone,’ ” the brief states. “The Legislature has a continuing obligation to review and update the basic education program as the needs of students and the demands of society evolve.”
The Legislature must continue to improve Washington’s education system and do so beyond McCleary’s kindergarten through high school mandate, including birth to college graduation. Public education remains the state government’s paramount duty. The work will never be completely finished.
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While many things can be done to improve education for Washington students, here are six things that remain on Washington’s to-do list.
• The Legislature has neglected to ensure special education is amply funded. After surveying every school district in the state, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told lawmakers that state funding for special education falls about $160 million short each school year. The Legislature responded by adding a fraction of that amount — $26.9 million — to the budget. This gap must be closed before lawmakers can truly say they are amply funding basic education for all of Washington’s school children.
• Too many high school students are dropping out before graduation. The numbers comparing students by ethnic group are especially troubling. Washington’s four-year graduation rate was 79.3 percent for the class of 2017, but among Native American and Alaskan Native students only 60.3 percent graduated on time. Some students graduate later, but the results remain concerning: More than 14,000 students who entered high school in 2012 had not earned a diploma by the summer of 2017.
• Students from different ethnic and economic groups are not getting the same educational opportunities and Washington’s achievement gaps are embarrassing. For example, just 36.9 percent of African American students in the sixth grade passed the statewide math exam last spring, while 63.2 percent of white sixth graders passed.
• Washington needs to do more to ensure children have everything they need to succeed in school and beyond. So many children need help outside of the classroom, from mental-health counseling to nursing to housing assistance for homeless families. Children in the foster-care system and those without a stable place to sleep each night are most likely to fall behind in their studies and eventually drop out of school.
• Washington’s promising early learning program benefits only some of the children who are eligible for the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). The Legislature adds millions to the early learning budget each year, expanding the program and helping more potential teachers get college degrees. So much more could be done to improve and expand one of the best ways to help every child enter kindergarten ready to learn. State officials estimate nearly 4,000 more eligible children would participate in 2018-19 if more slots had been funded.
• Low income college students are still not guaranteed a state scholarship to continue their education. The 2018 Legislature added $18.5 million to the State Need Grant, which will pay for scholarships for an additional 4,600 students per year. Nearly 14,000 needy students still sit on the waiting list for this important state support.
Some of these six solutions require more money — those are the easy ones. Others, like curing the disparities in graduation and achievement are longstanding, difficult problems that require deep exploration of successful strategies that can be spread across the state to improve every school and every school district.
This work is not easy, but it is essential for the well-being of Washington’s children today and into the future.