For more than a decade, the Washington State Legislature has been building a more sustainable and robust foundation for the education of our state’s 1.1 million public school students. We have made substantial progress on school funding, teacher pay and closing the opportunity gap.
Our state constitution provides that the purpose of the public school system — and our state’s highest duty — is to provide an appropriate education for all children in our state. To that end, in 2009, the Legislature formally included highly capable services as a component of basic education — a constitutionally guaranteed right.
Highly capable services have sparked concerns in Seattle, however, because of significant racial disparities in the program.
For example, the makeup of students receiving highly capable services in Seattle Public Schools does not reflect the diversity of the district’s population. In the 2018-19 school year, 11.8% of highly capable cohort students were Asian Americans, 1.6% were African American, 3.7% were Latino, 13% were multiracial and 69.9% were white. By contrast, the district’s population as a whole was 15% Asian American, 15.7% African American, 12.3% Latino, 9.4% multiracial, and 47.6% white.
These disparities are unacceptable. They have many causes, including years of resistance by the district administration to heed recommendations to reform the process for identifying highly capable students. Proposed reforms included testing at neighborhood schools during the school day instead of at other times and using testing instruments that do not disadvantage students who are learning English.
There is no justification for demographics of students participating in highly capable programs that do not reflect the diversity of the community in which they live. There also is no justification for remedies to increase diversity that simultaneously create new disparities, such as ending Seattle’s highly capable program only in the most diverse and lowest income quadrant of the city.
I introduced Senate Bill 6282 to require all of our state’s school districts to develop transition plans for highly capable students when making substantial changes to their program, instead of abruptly terminating those programs with no plan for how to meet their needs — as is the current proposal for Washington Middle School, whose highly capable program would be dissolved starting with next year’s sixth-graders.
The legislation does not dictate how school districts should deliver highly capable services and does not prevent districts from making changes to or gradually phasing out academic programs.
However, the bill does insist on a critical principle: Every student’s needs must be met. Period.
This includes students who are currently receiving highly capable services and need the opportunity for continued growth. The bill would require planning and communication with parents if a district changes the continuum of services provided.
We should strive to achieve equity by lifting up students who are furthest from educational justice, not by removing opportunities from students whom a district has identified as highly capable. The state’s constitutional responsibility is to address students’ varied needs fully — not to prioritize the needs of some students over those of others.
Indeed, this doesn’t have to be an either/or choice at all.
Each of our state’s students deserves an education appropriate to that student’s needs. That means all students in all schools. Working together, I am confident that we can deliver equity and excellence for students in Seattle and across the state — and we can do it without penalizing kids whom school districts have already identified as highly capable.