Did You Know That Washington State Made Great Strides in Low-Income Education This Year?

So much noise has been made about the Washington State Legislature’s bumbling of K-12 education this year. This is for good reason, obviously: our state constitution demands that we consider education to be our first and highest priority, and our lawmakers in Olympia have failed that charge again and again.

But here’s something you likely haven’t heard: the state legislature celebrated two enormous educational successes this year. First, a bipartisan group of legislators came together and passed the Early Start Act, which helps ensure that every child in Washington has access to high-quality early learning. And second, the legislature fully funded the state’s College Bound Scholarship program, which provides financial aid for low-income students. Together, these two programs help low-income kids earn the same opportunity to live productive lives as any other child born in Washington state.

levlogoFrank Ordway is the Director of Government Relations—“that’s just a dressed-up term for political strategist,” he demurs—for the League of Education Voters, an organization devoted to giving “all students an equal opportunity for success from cradle to career.” We met at the League’s headquarters on Lake Union to talk about Early Start and College Bound, which Ordway characterizes as “a pair of bookends that are really quite transformative.”

Early Start “ensures that by 2021, every low income child in Washington state will have access to all-day high-quality early learning,” Ordway explains. (By low-income, the law means children living up to 110% of the federally established poverty line (PDF), which right now totals roughly 30,000 kids in Washington—a number that could climb to 40 or 45,000 by the time the law is implemented.) He says this makes us the first state in the union to accomplish such a far-reaching goal. Ordway admits that the legislation is “complicated” to describe, but it’s packed with thoughtful flourishes that ensure these early learning programs will not be a race to the bottom.

For one thing, Ordway says, “We’re paying providers more. We’re not paying them like babysitters. We cannot have a workforce that’s paid less than a parking attendant” taking care of our children. For another thing, the law enforces regular assessments to ensure that the education providers “reflect the communities in which these families live.” In other words, Ordway says, the goal is not to encourage a fleet of upper middle class white providers to be airlifted into, say, Somali immigrant communities, it’s to “see a richer reflection of our communities and a cultural responsiveness.”

Many people and organizations helped push this through Olympia, but Ross Hunter deserves a lion's share of the credit.

Many people and organizations helped push this through Olympia, but Ross Hunter deserves a lion’s share of the credit.

Early Start also streamlines the process for eligible parents, increasing ease of use between government agencies and providing continuity of care. Once you’re eligible for Early Start, Ordway says, “You don’t have to keep applying,” even if your income goes up or down during the year you’ve been approved for Early Start. “Short of winning the lottery, we’re not going to take away the care for those children,” he says. Early education laws were weighted down by burdensome regulations to prevent fraud, but Ordway says the idea of “low income women stealing daycare” is ridiculous on its face and it prevents the children from the developmental assistance that they really need. “Even if the parents are screwing up, we shouldn’t be keeping those kids out of daycare.”

“Lots of legislators deserve credit,” for this accomplishment, Ordway says, but he cites Ross Hunter by name for wrangling bipartisan support and understanding the issue from top to bottom. “There were a lot of Republicans who voted for this bill.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum is the College Bound Scholarship Program, which started back in 2007 as “a small addition to the landscape.” It began as “a program that you sign up for in 7th or 8th grade.” College Bound promises that as long as students maintain a 2.8 GPA and don’t commit a felony, the state will fill in the gaps in tuition not provided by FAFSA and other scholarship programs. (The tuition is based on what it costs to go to UW, the most expensive public university in the state.)

This was originally envisioned as a small program to help a few motivated kids, but then the data started coming in. “The kids who who signed up for College Bound were outperforming every other kid,” Ordway says. “It’s one of the most encouraging hockey-stick graphs you’ll ever see.” Communities like Tacoma that have embraced the program by assigning case workers to check in on the children who sign up for the program have seen especially excellent results.

So what happened this year in Olympia? “215,000 students signed up” for College Bound, Ordway says, and “the state in the last budget made a full commitment to all those students and is now in a position to provide full coverage.” In conjunction with Early Start, the state has provided a commitment to ensure that all kids will enter the system prepared for K-12 education, and then they’ll enjoy “price certainty to ensure they’ll be able to go to college.”

Ordway says support for the College Bound program “went from life support in 2013 to really enthusiastic” this year. The data proving the program’s success certainly helped, but the League of Education Voters also helped build a coalition that brought students in College Bound to Olympia to meet with their legislators. Every state legislator has “pockets of great poverty” in their districts, Ordway says, and those personal appeals from students from those pockets, in conjunction with proven results, seem to have made all the difference.

Unlike the Early Start program, which is now an entitlement, the College Bound program is not ensured to survive through future legislatures. But the 7th and 8th graders who have already signed up for College Bound have entered into a contract with the state, Ordway explains, and though legislators could technically break the contract, it seems unlikely to happen. While this kind of “conveyer belt” legislation is not ideal, it’s also very hard to shut down once it’s set in motion, especially when it proves to be as successful as College Bound.

Don’t get me wrong: Washington State is still failing its future when it comes to K-12 education. But it’s important to celebrate the victories when they happen, and the League of Education Voters deserves credit for getting these two very important programs through Olympia unscathed, and for garnering bipartisan support. This represents a significant investment in the future of our state, and it’s proof that even in our fiercely partisan political atmosphere, good policy can prevail. We can do better, and Early Start and College Bound are proof.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.