How does the education system work here in Washington and how can families get involved with it?

 From Genesee Hill Legislative Chair, Victoria Bhegani

In these past weeks, with the reopening of schools, there has been a lot of buzz, and understandably some confusion, about just who makes up the policies and practices that shape our children’s education and who to speak to about what we want to advocate for our children. As the Legislative Chair for the GH PTA Board this school year, I am just beginning to dive into understanding how these processes work. They are complicated! So please bear with me as I give a brief overview of the what’s and who’s of this, and then wrap up with some suggestions on how to get involved and who to contact in case you do want to reach out.

In Washington State, K-12 education is shaped by a number of forces, including federal officials, the governor, city mayors, state board of education administrators, the state superintendent, state agencies, school board superintendents, school board directors, teachers’ unions and- particularly in these times of pandemic- public health officials. Some of the key players in this at the state level are the Washington State Board of Education (SBE) and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and at our regional level, the Seattle School District (SPS) and our local teachers’ union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA). In a very basic nutshell, education policies are often created by the SBE and the OSPI, who work closely together. School districts then must adhere to these policies, though there might be flexibility in how they do so. Policy implementation might also be changed by union negotiations.  

For example, with instructional hours, our state requires that students be in school for a minimum of 180 days of the school year and that elementary school students fulfill at least 1,000 instructional hours. In the re-opening of schools for 2020, the SBE has not changed these required hours. However, it has given school districts flexibility in how they implement them, be it through synchronous or asynchronous learning, or potentially outdoor learning. It’s not all up to the District though. Before school opened this fall, SPS also had to negotiate how these hours would be fulfilled with SEA.

As you can see, it’s complex. There are a number of pieces trying to move together to make something work, and in these times especially, what they’re trying to make work is no small thing. Our education system is trying to keep kids and staff safe this year, provide some security for vulnerable populations, keep staff employed, and engage our children in learning new things, all in the wildly different educational landscape of remote learning.  

It also bears noting that our state education system is underfunded, as was ruled in McCleary v. Washington in 2012. In the concluding remarks on the case the judge found, “State funding [for education] is not ample, it is not stable and it is not dependable.” While in 2017 the state introduced the “McCLeary Fix” to fulfill its paramount duty to fund education, despite good intentions, the education system continues to face funding shortfalls. These shortfalls affect how our system works at every level- districts struggle to meet their budgets and areas left especially vulnerable are special education, art education, teacher compensation and staffing for positions like nurses and school counselors. 

Further, in our regional politics, school board directors are unpaid. While Seattle city councilors receive a yearly average salary of $130,000 based on their hourly rate, and have up to four assistants working for them, our school board directors receive no salaries and have no paid staff to support their work. When you consider this landscape, it is not hard to wonder why processes do not work as well as they may. 

So what can you do about this?  

Get involved with the PTA

  • Join the Genesee Hill PTA. Your membership supports not only our school PTA but our state PTA. Stronger PTAs are PTAs that can better advocate for better schools and better school systems.
  • You can also learn about broader PTA initiatives by following the Seattle Special Education PTSA and the Seattle Council PTSA.
  • Give input about what should be the WA PTAs legislative priorities for the next two years by filling out this survey.

Advocate for adequate state funding

Give feedback about school re-openings this fall 

WA State

Seattle Region 

Parents, caregivers and families have a voice in all of this. If you want to see the school district acting with more innovation around how our students learn, you need to speak up and show up. So much of this depends on the legal understanding of responsibilities to our kids. Contacting your legislators and school and city council members, while acting in partnership with your PTA, is the best way for us to advocate for our children’s education. 

While these last six months have been challenging for Genesee Hill, many of our school families have been stepping up to engage. Our PTA Board has positions filled that sat empty for years and people are talking about public education and equity in ways many have never done before. Good things can come of this- things that help both our school and our public education system. Please contact me at legislativechair@geneseehillpta.org with any comments or questions you have or join me in a letter writing campaign to our legislators later this month. I’m rooting for our school staff who are navigating so much new territory and working hard to do the best for our kids. The advocacy work we do supports them, and I hope you’ll join me with it. 

References

  1. “Court’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law,” King County Superior Court, CONCLUSION, 2010-02-04, retrieved 2020-09-12
  2. McCleary v. Washington84362-7 (majority)(Washington Supreme Court 2012-01-05)
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