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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

February 3, 2014 at 1:31 PM

State lawmakers share their education priorities for 2014

Shortly before the start of the 2014 Legislative session, Education Lab asked education leaders in both the House and Senate to share three of their top priorities for the year. Here are the responses we received:

Keep tuition down, provide in-state rates for veterans

As chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, I am dedicated to finding workable solutions to meet the needs of students and our great post-secondary institutions. We have a world-class higher education system, and we must be willing to be creative and work together to meet funding challenges while still providing an opportunity for all Washington state students to excel. I am working to ensure that students graduate on time and prepared to enter the workforce to contribute and strengthen our state’s economy. My priorities this year are:

Provide in-state tuition to veterans and active duty servicemen and women: Currently, the Post 9/11 GI bill covers the cost of only in-state tuition. This is a real problem for many of our military neighbors, friends and family that contribute to our state’s economy and safety. They call this state home, have set down roots and yet could face serious barriers to achieving their college goals. Changing residency can be cumbersome, especially when juggling the demands of serving our country. SB 5318 reduces the wait time to receive in-state tuition and lets military members take full advantage of their education benefits.

Keep costs of tuition down: Last year I worked hard to expand access to our higher education institutions by holding the line on tuition increases. It was the first time that we stopped tuition increases at our public universities and college in 27 years. I’m proud of that accomplishment. We have one of the best education systems in nation, but that doesn’t mean anything if students cannot afford to attend. Keeping the costs of college affordable will allow for more students to achieve their educational goals and gain the skills they need.

The State Need Grant: This state financial aid is a vital component for many of Washington’s neediest but brightest students. It isn’t the answer to funding higher education for students but does provide assistance for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend college. The average award of a State Need Grant in 2012 was $3,600, and the program served nearly 74,000 students. Sadly, however, not all students who are eligible for the program were served. In fact, 32,000 eligible students went unserved by this program. My priority is to make sure that all eligible students are served by this program. We need to understand the drivers of rising costs of college and why so many students who are eligible for the State Need Grant get no help in realizing their college dreams.

State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Fund early learning before spending more on K-12

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled the state Legislature must put an additional $4 billion into K-12 education by 2018. But this ruling ignores the fact that 95 percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 5 — before he or she starts kindergarten — and that children who start kindergarten behind rarely catch up.

It would be irresponsible to spend $4 billion in our K-12 schools but not guarantee our children’s readiness upon entry. We must invest our tax dollars in opportunities that will close the achievement gap both before and after children enter our K-12 schools.

This legislative session, my focus will be on expanding the home visiting program, quality childcare and access to preschool.

Home visiting: We know that positive or negative experiences can help shape the very architecture and wiring of a child’s brain. Children who are exposed to fewer colors, less touch, little interaction with adults and less language literally have smaller brains. Mentorship, through voluntary home visiting, can be a saving grace for young, first-time or at-risk parents.

This past legislative session, we increased funding to voluntary home visiting by $1 million. The results are dramatic. Vulnerable children who receive home visits from trained professionals are much less likely to be abused, neglected, be criminals or become pregnant as teens. These same children are also more likely to be healthy and graduate from high school or college.

Quality child care: Strong, nurturing, and educational child care is essential to a young child’s healthy development. Fifty-thousand single parents in our state rely on Working Connections Child Care (WCCC). Without this child care, parents wouldn’t be able to work. Last year, we improved access to WCCC for eligible families. This year, Rep. Ross Hunter is sponsoring a bill to advance the quality of WCCC.

Improvements include: tiered reimbursements — higher rates for higher quality; reforming the eligibility so children can stay in care for a year, regardless of changes in their parent’s income; providing coaching and professional development opportunities for providers; giving enrollment preference to child care centers that increase quality; and ensuring, through education, that providers demonstrate cultural sensitivity.

These are common-sense improvements that will make Washington families stronger.

Preschool: High quality preschool provides children with experiences and knowledge that help get them ready for success in kindergarten. Pre-K can quite literally change the trajectory of an at-risk child’s life. The benefits identified in research include: reductions in special education placement, higher rates of high school completion, higher test scores, higher earning potential and lower rates of juvenile arrest.

Last year, the legislature implemented Early Achievers, a new quality rating system that will set higher preschool and child care standards, and provide support to providers so they can reach them. This year, we will build on Early Achievers by simplifying ECEAP regulations, rewarding providers who reach the highest rankings, lengthening the preschool day, and helping preschools to offer child care on-site, which makes the move between preschool and child-care easier on parents.

Choosing a daycare or preschool is one of the toughest decisions a parent can make. Early Achievers will give parents the information they need on the quality of providers in their community to make good choices for their children.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, chairs the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee. 

Use test scores to strengthen teacher evaluations

Sen. Steve LitzowIn 2013, we addressed Washington’s education needs in earnest for the first time in years by providing an additional $1 billion for K-12 education and adopting policies aimed at closing Washington’s opportunity gap – meaning the difference in student achievement between white and Asian children from middle- and higher-income areas and Hispanic, African American and Native American children from low-income families.

Our state’s current education practices have failed the same communities for too long; as elected officials, we have an ethical imperative to provide an education for all children so they may fully participate in democracy and find jobs in our global economy.

• Higher-quality early-learning opportunities: As chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee and as a board member for Thrive by Five – an early learning group – I’ve been able to review emerging studies on the potential outcomes of developing cognitive abilities before the age of five. While research in this field is constantly evolving, we know that providing early-learning services to children before kindergarten can significantly aid future learning.

In response, I’ve sponsored the bipartisan Early Start Act of 2014, which focuses on improving the overall quality of Washington’s early-learning programs and increasing access for children in available programs.

• Ensure every classroom has a great teacher: The goal of Washington’s teacher and principal evaluation program is to ensure every student has a great teacher. This year we are working to strengthen the evaluation system by including student-growth data from state tests to help identify high-performing and struggling teachers.

Last year the U.S. Department of Education declared our state was at high-risk of losing its federal waiver from federal No Child Left Behind policies because state law does not require use of statewide assessments in evaluations.

While working to strengthen the evaluation system as a whole, I’ve introduced legislation that would put Washington into compliance with the DOE; it would keep the state from losing more than $40 million to assist students in low-income communities.

• Build upon last year’s progress by prioritizing education: In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled the Legislature was not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide for K-12 education. Over the past 30 years, lawmakers prioritized non-education spending over education by a 2-to-1 margin. Given that, it’s easy to see why we are today facing not only that court order but also a 77 percent high-school graduation rate.

Last year, the Senate made education its budget priority; we provided an additional $1 billion for basic education by prioritizing early learning, K-12 and higher education over other government services by a 4-to-1 margin. Earlier this month, the court recognized that progress is being made but demanded a plan by April 30. In response, I wrote to Gov. Inslee and my counterpart in the House of Representatives, asking for bipartisan meetings to build consensus for additional investments and essential systemic reforms aimed at improving student achievement for all children in our state.

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

Close the opportunity gap, provide adequate teacher pay

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-1Fully funding a basic education for all Washington students must be our top priority. We know that funding reforms like class size reduction, all-day kindergarten and a 24-credit high school degree will make a significant difference in preparing children for success in school and life. The Supreme Court has clearly said we must act this year. We cannot go back to families in our districts and tell them that we decided to take the year off from making progress on fully funding education for their children. We have to act now.

• Closing the opportunity gap: We can’t let students slip through cracks in our education system. We need to close the opportunity gap that too many students still face so all Washington children can succeed and make sure that our promise of reform is available to every student in the state. By funding class size reduction to 17 students per class for grades K-3 by 2018, all students will get the individualized attention they need to get their education off on the right start. By funding statewide class size reduction and other key reforms, we can make sure existing reforms deliver on their promise for our students.

• A great teacher in every classroom: Every student deserves a great teacher. We’ve already passed landmark teacher-principal evaluation legislation that begins this year, and work continues to strengthen those evaluations and raise standards. Meanwhile, we need to ensure that our excellent teachers are being fairly compensated so we can recruit top-tier candidates to fill teaching jobs for our kids and take the salary burden off of local districts. As the Supreme Court just said, “nothing could be more basic than adequate pay” for teachers. We need high standards for our teachers, and we need to give them the support they need to meet those standards.

• Supporting children from cradle to career: Making sure every child gets a K-12 education is our state’s paramount duty, but children need more than just a K-12 education to succeed. Early learning is one of the best investments we can make in a child’s future, and the Legislature needs to improve and expand early learning opportunities so children enter school ready to learn. We also need to make sure that our high school degree is rigorous and meaningful, and prepares students to be ready for either college or a career of their choice.

Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, is a ranking member of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. She also serves on the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Make dropout prevention a priority

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-19Last session, the Legislature fell short in meeting its obligation to comply with the McCleary decision, a point that was affirmed by a recent State Supreme Court’s recent order. Keeping our commitment to fully fund education for all students will be the primary focus of the Legislature this session.

Some may view a fully-funded education system as the end goal, but in reality it is just the beginning. Without the right education policies in place, all the money in the world won’t ensure success for all students.

This session, I will focus on three core policies that aim to give all students the right foundation for learning: closing the opportunity gap, better preparing high school graduates for careers, and lowering the high school dropout rate.

Opportunity gap: Far too many students of color are being left behind in our public schools. The Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee has studied this problem in great detail since 2009. House Bill 1680 incorporates the committee’s recommendations and is a comprehensive approach to addressing the issues that require immediate attention. These issues include student discipline, cultural competency of our educators and better data collection.

Every child can be successful when given the opportunity to learn. If schools don’t have the right tools and resources in place before students enter the classroom, many children will face an uphill battle that’s difficult to overcome.

Career education: For too long, we’ve been so focused on getting students ready for college, we lost focus on those students whose future may not require a college degree. A college education is not the best option for every student. We need to ensure we open as many doors to as many careers after high school as possible.

The policy ideas behind two bills in particular, HB 1650 and HB 1656, will be high priorities this session. These bills would give high school students additional flexibility within their learning plans, allowing them to focus on career and technical education. These policies will not only give students a pathway to a career, but also a pathway to lead successful lives.

Dropout prevention: One out of four high school students does not graduate on time in Washington state. A high dropout rate results in several challenges to our community, including economic challenges as highlighted by this blog earlier this month. Students that do not complete high school are more likely to rely on public resources like food stamps and housing. They’re also more likely to end up in the judicial system. Housing an inmate for a year costs nearly $35,000. It takes less than one-third of that amount — about $10,000 — to educate a child each year.

Keeping students in school is not only the best option for students, but for society as well. Bills like HB 1424 will target schools that struggle the most with high dropout rates and give them the tools they need to increase on-time graduations.

State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, chairs the House Education Committee.

Comments | More in Guest opinion | Topics: 2014 legislative session, higher ed, legislature


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