Lawmakers must focus on education essentials

Living up to Washington state’s paramount duty to education is a work in progress, to put it mildly. But in this remote legislative session, state lawmakers must focus on pressing issues first.

That means giving schools needed flexibility during the continuing coronavirus pandemic, preserving recent gains in funding, and placing strong guardrails around any new allocations for pandemic-specific needs.

Washington schools have made some progress during the past decade, spurred by the McCleary lawsuit and state Supreme Court oversight. Investments in early learning have also helped get students off to better starts.

But special education remains underfunded and persistent resource disparities among schools around the state are only exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic. Remote learning is yielding mixed results.

Given the session’s unusual format, lawmakers must take pains to make deliberation transparent and accessible. This is not a year for kitchen-sink proposals. State lawmakers introduced more than a dozen education-related bills during the first two days of the session. More are coming, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said in an Associated Press legislative preview.

Some bills deserve swift passage, such as emergency waivers of graduation requirements and ensuring schools have sufficient and flexible transportation funding in times of emergency, including to deliver meals and materials to students, or transport students to learning centers.

Others continue good work from the previous session, including SB 5030, a bill concerning school counselors, which was the subject of a public hearing in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education committee last week.

Mirroring last year’s bill that passed the Senate but failed to advance in the House, SB 5030 would require school counselors to spend at least 80{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of their work time directly or indirectly counseling students. Schools would be required to develop plans for comprehensive school counseling programs, defining counselor competencies and learning standards. It would prevent counselors being too often dragged away from their important work to monitor recess, keep an eye on the lunchroom, or perform other tasks that don’t require their specialized knowledge.

The approach is an efficient way to make the most of counseling resources and meet the academic and mental-health needs of Washington students. Helping more students pursue postsecondary credentials and manage trauma from the pandemic will become even more important in coming years.

Lawmakers must ensure necessary new school money hits its intended target. The framework for the allocations should ensure the money is not bargained away or used to absorb other costs. If it is, the state should require districts to return it. That includes the governor’s proposal to budget $400 million to support students who have fallen behind during remote instruction. Without question, some funding will be needed to address the learning loss some students have experienced during the pandemic. The actual amount should be based in reality and sufficient to carry out a plan that begins with comprehensive student assessments and individualized plans to close learning gaps.

In higher education, lawmakers must do no harm, particularly when it comes to funding for financial aid. Last spring, lawmakers committed to tuition-free college for all eligible lower-income students. Those from families of four with an income of $50,000 or less, with partial grants to families making up to the state’s median income, which is more than $90,000 for the same size family.

This new Washington College Grant will essential be a lifeline for Washingtonians whose jobs evaporated during the 2020 recession, and essential for preserving other lower-income families’ access to higher learning and high-paying, satisfying work. It must be preserved.

The well-being and education of our state’s youngest and most precious residents must remain a priority during this time of disruption. Their futures are at stake and so is the vitality of our state over generations.

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