The 2021 Legislative Summary

Current Events & News, High School Success, Legislation, Policy Brief | 05/05/2021

Virginia Barry
Policy & Government Affairs Manager, Stand for Children Washington

With the legislative session behind us, we're proud to deliver our annual full-length summary of the bills and budget items impacting schools, students, and families that passed this year's state legislature.

Last week, the legislature wrapped its first-ever virtual session, which included the adoption of a $59 billion operating budget for the 2021-2023 biennium built off a better-than-expected revenue forecast, an influx of federal dollars, and a new tax on capital gains. School districts across Washington can expect to receive a portion of $1.7 billion in federal relief money, along with new guidelines on programs that support students such as the learning assistance program, DEI training for educators, and comprehensive school counseling. The budget also included increased funding for additional school counselors, special education, devices for distance learning, and a landmark investment in early learning. 

Supporting students’ high school success 

At Stand, we’re committed to ensuring all Washington students have the support they need to graduate high school on time and are prepared for postsecondary opportunities. Stand parents, volunteers, and partners advocated for the passage of SSB 5030, which will implement comprehensive school counseling in every district across the state. The bill protects counselors’ time to ensure they are able to spend 80% of their day providing vital academic, mental health, and college and career planning support -- a system based on national best practices that recognizes the varied and interwoven needs of students. We were thrilled that the operating budget also includes funding for an additional half time school counselor at high poverty elementary, middle, and high schools. 

Lawmakers also put forth a suite of bills that set the foundation for a more inclusive school building culture. ESSB 5044 will implement DEI training for educators, school board members, and school staff. The bill is a step in the right direction by ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion are embedded in the existing cultural competency standards. (Two higher education bills, E2SSB 5227 and SSB 5228, provide similar training to college faculty and medical students, respectively.) We are also celebrating a host of bills that create more supportive school environments for students often furthest from opportunity, including legislation to:

  • establish school building points of contact for youth in foster care (SB 5184)
  • improve systems that work with families when a student is absent to delay involvement in truancy courts (ESHB 1113)
  • use learning assistance program funds to address students’ academic and nonacademic needs stemming from the pandemic (SHB 1208)

The legislature also passed several bills making systems-level improvements aimed at supporting students to high school graduation and into their postsecondary pathway. First, the passage of ESSB 5321 was a win for postsecondary access by creating an automatic enrollment process for the College Bound Scholarship, which covers higher education tuition and fees for students who qualify due to family income. Since the scholarship was created in 2007, advocates have described the sign-up process as a bureaucratic formality at best and a barrier for students at worst. Now, all students who qualify will be enrolled without the previous requirement that they sign a pledge in middle school, saving staff time and lessening the burden on students and families to opt in to this financial aid. Second, E2SHB 1295 specifically targets the needs of students who are incarcerated by providing more equitable support for graduation, including accommodations that students in foster care or experiencing homelessness receive, and greater access to postsecondary opportunities. Finally, SHB 1302 provides greater dual credit opportunities by expanding eligibility for College in the High School to ninth grade and putting a cap on tuition.

Supporting families, working for justice 

This session marked a turning point for Stand Washington as we began to more intentionally advocate in critical education-adjacent areas such as economic justice and reform of the criminal legal system. In a year when state legislatures have put forth bills to undermine voting rights, particularly for individuals living in poverty and people of color, we’re celebrating Washington’s passage of ESHB 1078, which automatically restores voting rights for individuals who have been incarcerated upon their release. This bill has rightly received national attention. Likewise, we’re grateful the legislature passed ESSB 5226, a bill that will help keep drivers from losing their licenses if they are unable to pay a traffic ticket for a non-criminal infraction. Finally, we’re excited to report that this year our state voted to fully fund the working families tax credit (ESHB 1297), which residents may qualify for regardless of immigration status, and made major progress toward fixing Washington’s regressive tax system through the passage of a capital gains tax (ESSB 5096). 

The 2021-2023 Biennial Budget 

A little over a year ago, we watched Governor Inslee veto over $455 million dollars in spending from the 2020 supplemental operating budget in response to the pandemic. We were facing the beginning of an extended lockdown, remote school, and swirling rumors of budget austerity on the horizon, which pointed to a tough 2021 legislative session.

A few months later, something unexpected happened: the revenue forecast began showing an economic rebound that forecasted revenue not unlike what we might have expected had the pandemic not occurred. Stand and other advocacy groups then began shifting priorities from the defense of key investments from cuts to brainstorming ideas about the possibilities for a stronger recovery with healthy state coffers and an influx of federal dollars. 

We wrapped this year’s legislative session with a state operating budget (ESSB 5092) that includes a $33 billion set aside for K-12 education. This amount reflects the state general fund as well as funding from the three major federal stimulus packages passed in the last twelve months. $1.7 billion goes straight to districts with relative flexibility for how they will spend it, while OSPI has received several set-asides to help our state respond to students’ and districts’ needs in the wake of school building closures. In addition, districts that do not receive sufficient support from federal stimulus funding can access over $125 million in state dollars to stabilize their budgets if enrollments have dropped. 

Over $240 million is allocated to address unfinished instruction as a result of school building closures. That amount includes federal funding from the most recent stimulus package totaling $47 million, which will be split between after school, outdoor, and summer enrichment programs. It will also provide social emotional benefits and academic support to students. An additional $200 million for unfinished instruction will be subgranted out to districts via OSPI. We are hopeful that some of this state funding will go toward expanding the successful Ninth Grade Success pilots, one of our 2021 priorities, which uses a research-backed strategy to support incoming ninth graders and keep them on track to graduation. Next fall, ninth graders will enter high school after nearly a year and a half of remote learning, making this transition even more critical than before the pandemic. 

Elsewhere in the K-12 education budget, we were excited to see new funding for critical support staff, including over $51 million to add school counselors to high poverty elementary, middle, and high schools. To implement bills passed by the legislature aimed at supporting students, the budget includes funding to implement comprehensive school counseling enacted through SSB 5030, expand technology access by providing $24 million to procure devices for distance learningas dictated by E2SHB 1365, and support state agencies to develop DEI training as detailed in ESSB 5044. Stand also joined with the High School Success Coalition to protect nearly $9 million in funding for equitable access to dual credit; this budget line item provides free AP/IB tests for low income students, subsidized tuition for College in the High School, and grant support for districts seeking to improve equity in dual credit enrollment. It was omitted from the proposed Senate budget, but restored for the final version.

Special education will also get a big boost. Federal funding includes $57 million in additional IDEA funding for special education services, and $17 million in transition services for students with disabilities who exited high school over the past two years. The state also added $12 million from the general fund for training on inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms, an issue legislators have been working on for several years. 

Outside of K-12 education, the budget makes significant allocations including:

  • $261 million to fund the Working Families Tax Credit
  • $400 million in grants to stabilize the childcare industry as a result of the pandemic
  • $303 million to implement the Fair Start for Kids Act, a major investment in the Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) program and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), which will receive its funding from the new capital gains tax

Federal funding made the budgeting process more flexible but also added complexity, since districts that incur new ongoing costs will not have a revenue source after the stimulus funding expires. As we look ahead to the coming months, we expect a lot of discussion about how schools and districts can use these one-time funds for lasting impact (for an encouraging example, check out what Chicago Public Schools is doing to provide training to staff in trauma-informed student support practices). We’re looking forward to sharing the creative and impactful ways Washington leverages these dollars to support students’ reentry into school buildings.

Community of Advocates

We couldn’t have anticipated what this legislative session would hold. Every year there are ideas and policy solutions left of the table, but this year there are significant wins for students to celebrate. As a small team, the impact we’ve made on state policy this year would not be possible alone. We are incredibly grateful for the parents, caregivers, community members, educators, and advocates who volunteered their time, energy, and stories in support of these efforts (check out the screenshot below of our end-of-session celebration for some of their smiling faces!). Together with our partner organizations across the state, we’ve pulled together a coalition of activists who care deeply about doing what’s right for students, and we couldn’t be prouder to stand alongside you. Thank you for your advocacy, your attention, and for all you do for Washington’s students.

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