This year’s legislative session is already more than two weeks along, and leading Democrats in our state have yet to publicly express any interest in solving the learning loss in our state’s K-12 public schools.
They refuse to admit the biggest crisis concerning state government’s number one constitutional priority even exists.
The latest proof comes from a recent Seattle newspaper report on legislators’ education priorities for 2023.
The Senate majority leader, my counterpart on the Democratic side of the aisle, was quoted as saying there should be “another run” at lowering the threshold to approve school-bond measures. That means they want to make property-tax increases easier to pass, at a time when Republicans believe government should look at lowering property taxes.
The Democratic chair of the House education committee brought up pay for teachers. And while the Democratic chair of the Senate education committee mentioned special education, which I strongly support, none of these Democratic leaders acknowledged how students suffered severe learning loss over the past two years.
Washington students were victimized — which is a strong word, I know — by the delay in returning them to classrooms even after almost everyone figured out how to take COVID-19 precautions. Yet these leaders said zero about giving students extra attention and instruction to help them recover learning that was lost to the flaws of remote instruction.
Their silence adds them to the list of learning-loss deniers from state government’s executive branch. It’s headed by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state’s K-12 chief, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.
The K-12 plank in the operating-budget proposal submitted by the governor to legislators highlights climate-science education, for example. There is not a word about learning loss.
Reykdal told reporters the term “learning loss” is a “tremendous misnomer, and I encourage you to not use it any longer.”
The beauty of being a learning-loss denier is that it frees the denier from accepting any responsibility for either causing or fixing the damage done to our children.
By ignoring learning loss, Democrats need not concern themselves with helping students recover. They can focus instead on things like climate science education and weakening the constitutional threshold for passing bond issues.
Amazingly, Reykdal has publicly compared what happened to students during the 2021 and 2022 school years with what happens to a driver who is forced to pull over and deal with a flat tire. Don’t view it as losing ground, he argues, but as taking a “pause.” This is a wrong-headed view.
Tests have shown that only one out of three children are at grade-level. Sugar-coating the learning loss is no comfort to parents of K-12 students who are anxious and angry that their kids are struggling to get back to where they should be.
I’ve said it before: Our children should be counting on the grownups to help them recover the learning they lost. Their parents paid for a level of instruction that simply was not delivered in many schools for the better part of two years, and that needs to be fixed. They would likely be stunned to find out that learning loss is a front-burner issue for only one side of the political aisle in Olympia.
State government has $6 billion in reserve and needs only $1.5 billion to maintain services and programs as they are. There is more than enough to fund learning-loss recovery solutions like intensive tutoring and summer school. We as legislators need to see that the recovery is already late and needs to begin this year, not next year or the year after that.
A similar level of urgency is needed regarding the structural problems in how K-12 schools are funded.
Republicans want to promote equitable educational opportunities through a structure that blends strong state-level funding and a sensible local-levy cap. That lines up with the Legislature’s constitutional duty to provide for basic education. Unfortunately, underfunding by majority Democrats has put our state and its taxpayers on the path to another major education-funding lawsuit.
I just put a solution on the table, in the form of legislation that would invest in schools while bringing local levy rates back down. The Democratic majority ignored the version of the bill introduced in 2022. Denying the structural issues won’t make them go away. We need to acknowledge them and get going on a solution.
In his recent state-of-the-state speech to lawmakers, Inslee spoke of taking “bold action” to build a stronger Washington. One of the most important bold actions we need is a reboot of our K-12 system. Republicans are ready. Democrats need to stop denying the existence of the issues they helped to create, and join with us.
Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.