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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Donnelly: School board hopefuls pinpoint weighty issues

By Ann Donnelly
Published: September 30, 2023, 6:01am

At a Sept. 18 forum on November’s school board elections, challengers and incumbents focused on weighty issues so complex as to extend beyond school board responsibilities to the Legislature, the family and the community.

The forum was hosted by the Southwest Washington Federated Republican Women. All this year’s school board candidates were invited. Attending were incumbents Andrew Lawhon (Battle Ground), Rob Perkins (Evergreen), and Amanda Miller (La Center). Challengers included Larry Roe (Vancouver), Nick Wells (Vancouver), and Gary Wilson (Evergreen). To their credit, incumbents were as searching for answers as were the challengers.

Boiled down to essentials, the objectives of K-12 education are to teach reading, math, and basic science. Washington’s school performance metrics, while up from pandemic levels, are firmly in the “needs improvement” category. Newest data show that as of spring 2023, only 51 percent of students met English Language Arts, or ELA, standards, 39 percent met math standards, and 43 percent met science standards.

On a district level, for ELA, Evergreen tested at 38 percent, meaning that just over one-third were reading up to standards. More importantly, roughly two-thirds were not. Vancouver, Battle Ground, La Center, and Camas performed better in ELA, at 43 percent, 50 percent, 51 percent, and 74 percent respectively. Evergreen and Vancouver scored lowest for math, at 27 percent and 30 percent. Camas was highest in math at 64 percent.

Kids cannot learn if they are not present at school consistently. All forum speakers agreed that truancy is a serious problem. Statewide, as of 2021-22, only 67 percent of pupils regularly attend school. Locally, regular attendance was lowest at Evergreen (55 percent) and highest at Camas (79 percent).

At the forum, candidates highlighted their priorities. For Roe, they were pinpointing measurable goals, and giving each student the best opportunity; for Lawhon, safety and opportunity for every student. Perkins highlighted safety, transparency, and a range of opportunities, including the vocational track. Wells aspired to return the focus to basic education and to improve attendance, reading and graduation rates. Wilson supports streamlining administration and addressing truancy. For Miller, social and emotional education are paramount.

When questioned about SB 5599, in effect on July 23, requiring that young people not be reported to their parents when seeking protected health services, all the candidates recognized the potential conflicts and risks.

In the meantime, parent concerns on social issues are real. They are likely contributing to the 6 percent drop in the state’s public school enrollment since 2019-20, accompanied by increases for private schools and home schooling.

My takeaways: get all elementary school kids “hooked on phonics” for reading and the equivalent proven method for basic math. Creatively use the earmarked state and federal funds totaling $124 million for individual student tutoring.

School boards must tackle truancy, a complex reflection of COVID-19, family stresses, drug and mental health impacts. Wisely, Olympia schools recently voted to return School Resource Officers to campuses, for safety and reminders of accountability.

Another solution: expand the proven partnership with donor-supported Teach One to Lead One (clarkwa.t1l1.org), whose kindly mentors achieve miracles in enticing vulnerable kids to school. Ten area schools have T1L1 programs this school year, and private funding for more is needed.

The stakes are high, so vote thoughtfully in November’s school board elections.