OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday signed a wide range of bills into law to increase funding and support for K-12 schools. Some of the new laws provide money for school support staff, outdoor education opportunities and retrofits for school buildings with high-risk seismic hazards.
“The budget reinvests hundreds of millions of dollars in the education of our kids,” Inslee said before signing the bills. “These investments are needed more than ever if we’re going to close the opportunity gaps, particularly in the light of the pandemic.”
Inslee also signed bills to provide enrollment stabilization funding for schools impacted by COVID-19, give voting rights to student members of the state board of education, increase language access in public schools and allow retired educators to work for a school district while still receiving pension benefits.
Increasing support staff for students
One of the bills signed into law will increase the number of support staff, like counselors and nurses, in schools.
Over the next three years, elementary, middle and high schools will see increases in the minimum funding allocations they receive for nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors. The Legislature provided $90.5 million through 2023 to support the increase.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal highlighted increased investments for support staff as a priority of his office.
“We’ve been wanting that student support side to really complement the instructional side for a long time,” Reykdal said at the bill signing.
Becky Doughty, executive director of student support services for Spokane Public Schools, previously detailed how her nurses are stretched to their limits.
Most nurses split their time between two buildings to make sure all schools have health coverage. She said nurses find themselves providing students with mental health support, especially at the high school level. They “have an open-door policy and try to fill the gaps in whatever way they can in addressing the other needs besides the physical,” she told The Spokesman-Review in January.
As nurses take on increased responsibilities, Doughty said, any additional support they can get will go a long way.
“We’re really starting off from a place where any changes that can be made to that allocation is going to be very impactful and very supportive of what we’re trying to do by providing health care during the school day,” she said.
Outdoor school for all
Inslee also signed into law a measure to expand opportunities for outdoor education.
The law creates a grant program to support schools looking to participate in outdoor education programs. School districts, federally recognized tribes and outdoor education providers will all be eligible for grants to develop and support outdoor learning experiences.
Within that grant program is an “outdoor education experiences program” that will provide hands-on learning opportunities for fifth- and sixth-grade students. Those outdoor opportunities will have a focus on environmental education and the development of social and emotional learning skills. High school students will also be able to volunteer as counselors for the learning opportunities.
Inslee brought an ice ax and a pair of hiking boots to the signing – items Inslee said his father used when he worked on Mt. Rainier. Inslee said his father led outdoor education programs, taking students to fix alpine meadows that were damaged by “thoughtless hikers.” His parents’ work outdoors “gave me a recognition of how important an outdoor experience is for young people,” he said.
“Any child who spends one night in a sleeping bag forever appreciates the nature and the wonderful blessings of the state of Washington,” Inslee said. “This is going to allow all kids to have that access – not just the lucky ones.”
The Legislature provided $10 million to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction through 2023 to facilitate the outdoor education grant program.
Seismic safety grant program
Another law Inslee signed creates a grant program for schools looking to retrofit their facilities to address seismic hazards.
The program, administered by OSPI, will provide grants for shools at high risk for earthquakes and tsunamis to complete building projects to address seismic hazards. Grants will cover at least two-thirds of a project’s total costs.
Grant applications will be reviewed by an advisory board within the office, who will then create a prioritized list of projects to fund. The superintendent of public instruction and the governor will review the list and include applications as part of their annual capital budget request. This year’s supplemental capital budget invested $100 million into the grant program.
Bill sponsor Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, previously said putting the program into law ensures money for school retrofits will come every year, as opposed to the “piecemeal” funding that has been historically provided.
“We need a whole of government approach to shore up these schools in these areas where these kids could be at risk,” Frockt told The Spokesman-Review last month.