State should encourage schools to think differently about ‘learning loss’

The Washington State Constitution describes education as its “paramount duty,” and the Legislature dedicates half of its $54 billion operating budget to K-12 education. Each year, lawmakers fiercely debate educational reform topics from school funding, graduation standards, and collective bargaining to levy reform, curriculum choices, and testing requirements. More recently, as a result of the COVID pandemic, school districts are focused on remote learning, technology needs, and safe reopening.

One of the things missing from the overall discussion, in my opinion, is whether the current school year model makes sense for a 21st century school. Why is it that Washington taxpayers and people across America invest so much into their school systems while annually accepting an antiquated school calendar? Is it the most prudent use of taxpayer funds from a return on investment perspective to resign ourselves to a schedule year after year that leaves students across our state with three months of no instruction and a month of reteaching every September? If we could redesign the school calendar today, wouldn’t we do things very differently?

These are the questions I am attempting to answer in my Senate Bill 5147, a bill co-sponsored by many legislators, including committee chairs and leadership members from both parties. The bill includes a financial incentive for any district that chooses to voluntarily apportion their existing 180 state-funded school days over a full year. This will likely require multiple three-week breaks throughout the year or a few one-month breaks. The bill was recently approved by the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. The bill has another hearing this afternoon before the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, which develops the Senate’s budget proposal. Many stakeholders are expected to testify, including local educational leaders Michelle Price, superintendent of the North Central Educational Service District, Gene Sharratt former superintendent and Washington State cabinet member, and Tom Venable, superintendent of the Methow Valley School District.

Both the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee and Ways and Means Committee are working to address “learning loss” this legislative session. Learning loss is something that will, unfortunately, impact nearly every student across Washington state due to the COVID pandemic and the less-than-ideal circumstances associated with statewide remote learning. Some students could spend most of their remaining K-12 years just trying to catch up to their pre-pandemic academic learning trajectory. Sadly, many students will be burdened by COVID’s educational impacts for many years to come.

The COVID educational impacts will burden most students for many years and likely will be compounded by the continual learning loss in future years, which occurs every summer as a result of outdated school calendars historically designed to accommodate our agricultural needs. Our current school calendar was created to allow students to have a three-month summer break to assist their families on their farms but became commonly accepted over time and now goes largely unquestioned. It’s now time to think about transformational changes that could help every student across Washington. With my bipartisan effort outlined in Senate Bill 5147, I’m calling on my colleagues in the Legislature to think differently about how to improve our educational delivery system. If we cannot do it now, as we prepare to pull ourselves out of this pandemic, when will we ever be able to? Fortunately, my legislative colleagues and I are not alone. Our Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal identifies “balancing the school calendar” as one of his “10 strategic changes” for our schools, and I agree. In a January 8 letter to the governor and legislators, Superintendent Reykdal urged us to explore options to help our schools “become the highest performing public education system in the nation.”

I do not think we get there by taking a long break every summer.


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