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Washington lawmaker takes aim at summer learning gap

Swimming, riding bikes or playing video games all summer might sound like fun for a kid, but the consequences of setting aside learning for 11 or 12 weeks are profound.

Dozens of studies have found students lose reading and math skills during a traditional summer break; that loss is even more pronounced in low-income children.

Washington state Sen. Andy Billig plans to introduce a bill when the Legislature convenes next week for a pilot program to address summer learning loss at low-income schools.

The Summer Knowledge Improvement Pilot would extend the school year by 20 days for three consecutive years at 10 schools statewide. To be eligible, an elementary school must have 75 percent or more of its students receiving free or reduced-price meals. Spokane Public Schools has 13 elementary schools that fall into that category.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy would evaluate the pilot’s results at the end of three years and report to the governor and the Legislature.

The achievement gap between children in high- and low-income households is caused “significantly by summer learning loss,” said Billig, a 3rd District Democrat who is a member of the senate’s Early Learning & K-12 Education committee.

“I don’t think we would ever do this at every school,” he added. “This bill is about closing the opportunity gap for low-income kids.”

National studies support the need for such programs. Funding a pilot right now, however, might be a tough sell.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Legislature needs to speed up its efforts to fully fund education in the state, despite setting aside about $1 billion more for schools in 2013. In its McCleary decision in 2012, the court found that the state was failing in its “paramount duty” to amply fund K-12 education.

Justices gave lawmakers an April deadline for coming up with a plan to meet required funding levels by 2017-18.

Also on Thursday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn released a draft of a bill calling for sales and property tax increases to fund basic education.

Dorn said he likes the sound of Billig’s pilot program. Helping low-income kids maintain the academic gains they’ve made during the year is important, he said. He added that if basic education were fully funded, “there would be enough money in the system to accomplish those efforts.”

Billig said legislators should be looking beyond merely meeting their obligation under the McCleary decision. “It’s about providing the best education for children within our borders,” he said.

Nevertheless, he will propose the pilot begin in 2015, during the next budget cycle. The pilot’s price tag is unknown at this point.

The bill allows individual schools leeway on when the 20 days can be added, such as 10 at the beginning of the school year and 10 at the end or all in one summer month.

Districts’ plans would have to include best practices and evidence-based strategies for the extra days. There would also have to be proof that at least 70 percent of the schools’ staff and faculty and the principal were on board with the plan.

Billig’s bill suggests a diverse group of schools would be best for determining the program’s effectiveness.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger is interested. The bill is “a good one. We like it,” she said.

“I really do feel that we need to focus on funding the McCleary decision,” Redinger said. At the same time, “I do feel we need to get at extending the school year to address the achievement gap. A pilot makes sense.”

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