Why the State’s Education Leader Says Washington Schools Are ‘Accelerating’

Why the State’s Education Leader Says Washington Schools Are ‘Accelerating’

Dahlia Bazzaz / The Seattle Times

Graduation rates are holding steady, enrollment is rising and school districts are on track to spend their federal pandemic aid funds, the state’s top education official said Monday.

“We took a bit of a hiatus during the pandemic. But we’re picking up speed again,” said state Superintendent Chris Reykdal, who outlined a wide range of policy proposals at a news conference on the first day of the 2023 legislative session.

He urged lawmakers to focus on student mental health, citing rising youth suicide rates and a 2021 state study that found nearly two-thirds of high school students and nearly half of high school students middle schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two weeks of the year. His agenda also supports lifting a statewide cap on special education funding, providing free school lunches to students and expanding a library program that gives free books to children age five and older.

This year’s agenda is consistent with what the state Department of Education has supported — and not supported — in previous years. Reykdal, a former Democratic state lawmaker, is serving his second four-year term as state supervisor; he has no power to pass laws.

His presentation included some new statistics and forecasts compiled by his office.

* School enrollment increased slightly this past fall, but total enrollment is still down 4% from fall 2019. This year’s total public school population is 1,095,122, about 46,000 fewer students than at the start of the pandemic. Reykdal said he doesn’t foresee a “quick recovery” in that number as many families find alternatives they’re sticking with, such as homeschooling. He asked lawmakers to help offset the loss of funding associated with the move, a request he has made in previous years.

* Four-year graduation rates increased 2 percentage points, to 82%, compared to 80% in 2019. (In Seattle Public Schools, graduation rates increased 6 percentage points over the same time period.) This has likely tied to a push by districts and the state to make sure pandemic hardships didn’t keep students from graduating. Among the fixes: a state program that waived loans for qualifying students. Fees are also slightly lower for most students of color and for adoptive and immigrant students. White and Asian students lost a small amount of ground. Reykdal said his office will look into the trend, although it likely isn’t statistically significant.

* Salaries have made up the bulk of school districts’ spending on the federal government’s pandemic relief, and classroom teachers have received the lion’s share of that money. Using those one-time funds, the districts paid for nearly 2,400 new classroom teachers, followed by other employees such as pre-educators, librarians, emotional support staff and classified staff. This expense may have been used to maintain positions that might otherwise have been cut. He said the districts were on track to spend most of the remaining funds this school year, responding to concerns about a slow spending of aid dollars here and in other states. And, in a statement that seemed aimed at a demand for more transparency in how the dollars are spent, he said his office was working within the requirements of the law, which is vague about requiring detailed accounts of spending.

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