As they launched into their full-fledged pandemic legislative session earlier this month, lawmakers in Washington state had no shortage of education issues to sort through.
More than 60 bills related to K-12 schools are in the works already, including proposals to maximize the role of school counselors, change truancy policies and reopen school buildings. Heading into the session, lawmakers and state executives said their priorities would be focusing on supporting student mental health, granting financial flexibility to school districts and expanding access to the internet.
Advocates hope the systemic problems highlighted by the pandemic will inspire lawmakers to pass more measures aimed at transforming schools rather than returning to business as usual. A number of significant bills not directly related to the pandemic response, including one that would require school districts to incorporate lessons on anti-racism into their professional training programs, are also being considered.
“There’s a moral obligation to address some of the challenges that have been present for many years,” said Jake Vela, director of policy and research for the League of Education Voters in Washington state.
If past years are any indication, the priorities may change significantly once a clearer financial outlook emerges. The main task before legislators is to pass the state’s operating budget for the next two years. The state is expected to receive a revenue forecast in March that may “shift the tone of the session,” Vela said.
“I predict that we can’t predict anything,” said Marissa Rathbone, director of government relations for the Washington State School Directors’ Association, an advocacy group composed of school board members. “I predict that we’re gonna need a lot of grace and patience.”
A huge chunk of money for education, about $825 million, is also expected to arrive from the second federal coronavirus stimulus package. Some lawmakers and the state Education Department would like to require school districts to submit a plan for how they plan to address learning impacted by the pandemic in exchange for those funds. The federal money can be used for a broad range of purposes, including supporting summer learning, addressing learning loss, purchasing personal protective equipment and repairing school ventilation systems.
With those moving parts in mind, here are some topics and proposals popping up early in the session:
Lawmakers are reviving legislation that died last session to tighten the definition of school counselors’ duties. The bill is designed to maximize the amount of time these staff spend directly serving children, and limit time spent overseeing recess or completing other duties that fall outside national standards for school counselors.
Last year’s version of the bill received broad support in the state Senate but never made it onto the House’s hearing schedule, said Virginia Barry, policy and government affairs manager for the nonprofit Stand For Children Washington, which supports the policy. “There’s pretty broad consensus,” for streamlining the role of school counselors, she added. The bill received unanimous approval from the Senate’s education committee last week, and now awaits a vote from the Rules committee.
Last year, as it became clear many high school seniors would fail to graduate without intervention, the Legislature granted the state Board of Education the power to hand out emergency waivers of graduation requirements. Those powers expired last July. A new bill would allow the board to extend waivers if students are impacted by a national, local or state emergency. Another bill, also requested by the board, would reduce the number of credits required for graduation from 24 to 20.
Expanding access to technology
State and local school districts have purchased millions of dollars worth of internet access plans from major service providers and offered them to families for remote learning. But significant gaps in digital literacy and access to the internet still exist, especially among marginalized and low-income communities, said Sharonne Navas, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Equity in Education Coalition.
“We are nowhere near as developed in our infrastructure as we need to be,” said Navas.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal to the Legislature includes $79 million for increasing access to residential broadband. It also asks for $6 million in funds to implement Connect WA, a plan put together by a coalition of community and government leaders including Navas, leaders from the state Education Department, lobbyists for tribes and the King County Housing Authority. The program would, in part, pay for what are called “Digital Navigators” — “experienced, trauma-informed social service providers, who, while reaching out to families around food, housing, health, and mental health services, are also cross-trained to offer digital access and digital literacy support.” Another element of the proposal involves creating a statewide dashboard to show where internet needs are the greatest.
The coalition is working to ensure digital equity is a part of the budgets proposed by the House and the Senate.
In an effort to address the scattered approach to school reopening across the state, Sens. John Braun, R-Chehalis, and Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, introduced a bill that would require school districts to expand in-person instruction to all students if their counties meet certain disease thresholds. Under a revised version of the bill, districts must provide in-person instruction to all students in counties where COVID-19 test positivity rates are below 5% or where cases are below 200 cases per 100,000. Districts in counties where cases are below 350 per 100,000 would be required to provide in-person instruction for grades K-8. It would also prevent Gov. Jay Inslee from imposing a shutdown order on districts where test positivity rates are low.
“We gotta find a way to get back into school, with basic precautions,” said Braun. “This provides instructions to schools — I’m open to using different measurements.”
But state and some national health experts have begun to move away from using health metrics as a firm measure for when to reopen, stressing that safety measures are more important than a set of numbers.
Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of health for COVID-19, testified against an earlier version of the bill at a Jan. 18 hearing.
“If metrics are put into statutes, it will be hard to put in new metrics based on data and science,” she said.
Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the education committee in the Senate, said she “wasn’t supportive of the idea.” She said it ignores the reality that “there are all kinds of collective bargaining agreements between school districts and unions around reopening.”
One parent delivered emotional testimony in support, sharing the story of his son’s suicide and the isolation from his peers he experienced during the pandemic. Nasue Nishida, who testified on behalf of the state Education Department, said the agency supports the “intent” of the bill but did not explicitly support or oppose it.
Seattle Times staff reporter Hannah Furfaro contributed reporting to this story.