As a policy advocate for OneAmerica, our team starts each year with a beautifully packaged legislative agenda. It’s all so clear and simple: everything will sail right through the votes this time, right? But our plans never, ever look the same as we orginaly thought by the end of the session.
Every bill, whether it’s controversial or not, takes many twists and turns before finally reaching the governor’s desk. For those of us who don’t live and breathe Olympia day in and day out during the legislative session, it’s difficult to really understand the process and what policies will actually become law. The legislative session officially ended late last night – on time for the first time in many years. And this year Washington had several major victories for education. Here are just a few of them.
Washington State Dream Act. One of the most publicized bills of the session, the WA Dream Act expands state financial aid eligibility to undocumented students and to students who have received deferred action for childhood arrivals status (DACA).
For the past several years, the bill’s been introduced each session but never even made it through committee. A grassroots campaign launched last year put significant pressure on the legislature, finally building enough support to take it to the governor’s desk.
The bill not only expands college opportunities to thousands of young aspiring citizens but also adds $5 million to the state need grant to increase the number of eligible students who will receive funding.
State Seal of Biliteracy. This bill did not get a lot of press, but it is an exciting piece of legislation. It gives students who can demonstrate knowledge in a second language a special seal on their high school transcript, similar to the seal for advanced placement courses.
Momentum for the state seal was drawn from South King County School Districts who have been working hard over the past few years to grant competency-based credits to students who speak a second language. The bill not only honors the many assets that first and second generation immigrants bring to their educational experience but also lays the groundwork for further conversations about how the state can cultivate the value and advantages of developing a second or third language in all students.
Paraeducator to Teacher Pipeline. This is another seemingly quiet little bill that makes some important institutional changes in the education system. This bill establishes a taskforce to determine how paraeducators and instructional aides – adults who are working in classrooms with students, often immigrants or people of color – can become certificated teachers. This effort has the potential to further diversify our teacher workforce as well as support our state and districts to intentionally recruit local teachers with classroom experience in shortage areas such as ELL, special education, math and science.
College and Career Ready Standards. This contentious bill went through a number of iterations but passed during the final days of session. It boosts the high school graduation requirements from 20 to 24 credits beginning with the class of 2019 and requires school districts to align their requirements and funding with these standards.
Extended Learning Opportunities. This bill began as a broader package that was ultimately trimmed to a portion that establishes a council to oversee afterschool and summer learning activities to help students reach grade level standards from Kindergarten to 8th grade. Research shows that expanding the school day and providing summer learning opportunities to struggling students can significantly close the opportunity gap. This bill is the first step to prioritizing this in our state.
Early Learning. There were big plans for early learning education and care this year and a significant packaged bill called the Early Start Bill unfortunately did not make it through the session. However, this bill laid the groundwork for a comprehensive plan to increase access, quality, and funding for early learning in the years to come. In addition, there were several approved budget items that will boost early learning opportunities for our youngest learners such as increased reimbursement rates for family childcare providers, funding for several pilot programs and prioritization of children involved in child welfare for the state’s preschool program.
As this session comes to a close, one of my major takeaways has been the power that people have to influence and make change.
Witnessing hundreds of students and families come down to the capital to testify and convince their elected officials to pass legislation, and watching advocates wait for hours in the chamber wings to catch a representative or senator for two minutes has made me realize how although politics can seem very inaccessible, we have the power to make change.
So take a moment today to thank those who gave of their time and energy to make our state a better place and ask how you can get involved in 2015!