Legislature shrinks education opportunity gap; governor’s signature next

By Izumi Hansen

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — A comprehensive bill focused to give opportunity to systematically disadvantaged students has passed the Legislature and now awaits the governor’s signature.

“Closing the education opportunity gap is the single most important step we can take to ensure that every student has a meaningful opportunity to learn,” said Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, in a statement this week. “This vote moves our state closer to eliminating the inequities that exist in our educational system and gives our students the opportunities they need to succeed.”

HB 1541 is meant to address a cultural disconnect among teachers, students, school districts and families through eight avenues. These include changes to long-term disciplinary actions for behavioral offenses, creating reintegration plans for students rejoining the classroom, developing cultural-competency training for teachers and school administrators, and separating student and teacher data into subsections of race and ethnicity.

The bill was developed from recommendations created by the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee during its seven-year study.

The education opportunity gap is different from the achievement gap and is meant to recognize structural disadvantages for students of color, according to the committee’s 2015 report. The Legislature created the committee in 2009, and the committee updated its recommendations until meeting legislative approval this session.

“Students who aren’t in the classroom fall behind their peers and do not have the opportunity to succeed,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, in a statement. “We have an ethical imperative to ensure children have access to the educational opportunities necessary for success in life.”

The House has passed the bill each session since first proposing the recommendations in 2011, but the legislation was routinely stopped in the Senate before it could reach a floor vote.

Opponents said the bill was too expansive, and urged splitting it into independent bills. Proponents said splitting the larger bill would result in an incomplete execution of recommendations and harm students more than help.

“Fully funding a broken system will not get us the educational outcomes we want when the deck is stacked against so many of our kids. All kids deserve an education,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, in a statement. “Closing the opportunity gap is a huge step in the right direction in restoring equity in our schools.”

Santos and Litzow, along with Frieda Takemura from the state’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, co-chaired the committee for the 2015 report on which the bill was based. Santos and Ortiz-Self co-sponsored the House measure.

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