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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.
News / Opinion / Columns

Westneat: Students gone missing: Struggling public schools have fallen off the radar in Washington

By Danny Westneat
Published: January 22, 2024, 6:01am

For most of the past three decades, Seattle pollster Stuart Elway has asked voters to set the agenda. He includes a question in his polls asking what people think state politicians in Olympia should focus on.

“I do it to set the stage,” Elway said. “What is everyone going to be talking about this year in local politics? What matters?”

He’s noticed that ever since the coronavirus floated into the state, something has gone missing.

“Education and the public schools have always been near the top of what’s most important,” he told me. “From ’95-2000, 2003, 2005-2006 and from 2015-2018, education was the No. 1 issue in the state. And every other year it was in the top two or three.

“Now it’s just dropped off the agenda.”

Two years ago, only 6 percent of voters in his surveys, which he now does for the Crosscut news site, suggested the state Legislature prioritize K-12 schools. The pandemic pushed everything aside that year, but education plummeted the most, ranking ninth. It fell to the level of concerns about nonexistent election fraud.

Last year, the schools stayed out of mind, at just 5 percent. This year, with Gov. Jay Inslee retiring, Elway asked voters what factors or issues might sway their 2024 votes on who should be the next governor. The state’s public schools barely made the list, trailing homelessness, the economy, taxes, crime, drugs and even “no answer.” (The top answer was which party the candidates belong to.)

This past week, I tuned in to Olympia to hear the governor’s “State of the State” address and the opening remarks to the Legislative session by House Speaker Laurie Jinkins. It’s not just these polls: She didn’t mention K-12 schools at all, while Inslee noted that he hopes to boost pay for paraeducators. That was it.

It can’t be that voters or politicians have concluded everything is fine in the schools. Many districts face large budget deficits, despite an influx of money from both coronavirus aid and the McCleary legal decision. Other districts can’t pass bond issues to fix crumbling buildings.

Then there’s academics. You can make a case that of all societal institutions struggling to recover from the pandemic, the schools are still struggling the most.

Lost learning, which researchers have pegged at about half a year in most Washington school districts, has mostly not been regained. Test scores still lag pre-pandemic levels by 10 percentage points. This means about 100,000 more kids in the state are failing to meet grade-level standards — many of them students who weren’t failing before.

Recently, the Seattle School Board was reviewing some grim stats when the staff gave a shocking reason for why test scores haven’t recovered. About 40 percent of middle schoolers, and 30 percent of elementary students, are chronically absent from the city’s Title 1 schools. (These are schools with higher proportions of students from low-income families.)

No amount of great intentions or tutoring is going to make a dent if the kids simply aren’t there. Something has shifted; before the pandemic, chronic absenteeism in Seattle’s elementary schools was about 15 percent. That’s not great, but 30 percent to 40 percent is a five-alarm crisis. (There’s a proposed bill in Olympia to address this, including paying for home visits; hopefully it will get enough oxygen, and money, to pass — before it’s too late.)

Elway said it isn’t clear why the public isn’t dialed in right now. Other big crises like homelessness and crime are more visible. Other problems, like the soaring cost of living, are more broadly shared.

There’s also the nationalization of politics.

“Everything is filtered now through a national partisan lens,” he said. “If the national candidates and parties aren’t talking about it and whipping everybody up, then the media doesn’t focus on it. It kind of drops out of sight.”

This is a mistake. National topics like, say, threats to democracy are vital and can be all-consuming. But we’ve got to be big enough, confident enough, not to be totally dominated by that.

The harsh reality is Washington’s public schools are slipping. The dig out from the pandemic is going to be a long slog, with fits and starts. That students are still going missing four years on would make this a terrible moment for the political system and its leaders to go missing, too.

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