Over the next three years, Washington state is dedicating more than $600 million to help schools hire more counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists.
It was among the major wins this year for school funding advocates, who had been lobbying state lawmakers for years to improve a formula that provides school districts with the salary for just one school nurse for every 5,263 elementary school students. By 2025, that ratio will change to one nurse for every 684 students.
Amid ongoing concerns about student mental health deteriorating during the pandemic, “It was the one thing we had to make sure we did,” said State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver.
The change in funding will alleviate some of the need for school districts to pull from local levy funds — which are intended to fund enrichment programs — in order to hire for these positions. There is also some accountability baked in: Schools have to show they actually hired for these positions in order to qualify for increased funding. Under the current model, schools can repurpose their allocations for counselors and school psychologists to other positions.
The change is a step in the right direction, said Jake Vela, director of policy and research for the Washington State League of Education Voters. But to fully address the mental health needs of students, he said, other critical changes are important, including hiring specialists who reflect the diversity of the students they serve and providing culturally responsive training.
“Funding is part of that, but it’s not gonna fix the problems,” Vela said. He added that the funding could be more equitably spread by gauging students’ mental health and socioeconomic needs, rather than distributing the money equally between the districts.
Schools will also get another, one-time chunk of change to offset their enrollment losses, which were as high as 8% in some Seattle-area school districts.
Some lawmakers pushed back on this idea because they believe the drop in school rosters is permanent, said Dan Steele, assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, which advocated for the funding. Schools also received a historic amount of stimulus funds from the federal government that can be used to offset temporary enrollment loss due to the pandemic.
Ultimately, the Legislature settled on a $346 million solution that would compensate districts for the equivalent of half the students they lost between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years.
Steele said the funds would used to help districts while they assess whether the drop in students would be permanent.
“It’s a bridge to get us to where we are now until the end of the school year,” he said.
Here are some other changes to schools that came out of this year’s legislative session:
- A pot of $100 million was created to address improvements needed at schools that are at high risk for damage during an earthquake. Within that pool of funding, $8 million is reserved for emergency fixes to schools identified as having very high seismic risk.
- The state will establish its own student loan program for college costs. The program will prioritize low-income borrowers and charge no more than 1% interest.
- A $4.5 million grant program was created to financially assist schools that are phasing out school mascots portraying Native American people and symbols. Use of such mascots was outlawed for schools in January, except in special cases where schools have sought permission from tribes.
- Legislators set aside $10 million to expand outdoor school, a multiday excursion into the wilderness to learn about nature, to all fifth and sixth graders in the state. Schools and districts that have underfunded science programs will get priority for funding.
- School districts will be able to apply to a $1 million grant program to fund high-intensity tutoring, an intervention school districts across the country have used to catch students up during the pandemic.