The usual complaint about the Legislature is that it creates policies without funding them.
This session broke new ground, however. The Legislature funded a major new policy in public education but then failed to authorize it. Unfunded mandates have become funded nonmandates.
The policy is the 24-credit high school diploma, the culmination of work begun in 2009 to sync up high school graduation requirements with admission demands of colleges — both four-year and career and technical colleges. Mandated by the state’s sweeping House Bill 2261, the 24-credit diploma — sometimes referred to as the “meaningful high school diploma” — will replace current requirements that students earn 20 credits.
More credits means the state can require more English, more math and more science while not reducing the opportunity for arts and electives.
“There’s no excuse for a student with a high school diploma not being able to attend the local community college without remediation,” said Frank Ordway, the government relations director for the League of Education Voters. The league supports 24 credits. So does Stand for Children. So does the state PTA. So does the business-funded Partnership for Learning. So does the Washington Board of Education, which crafted the new requirements.
Missing from the list of supporters, though, is the Washington State House of Representatives and the Washington State Senate. Both failed to pass legislation authorizing the state board to require school districts to have 24-credit high school programs. And that failure means it will not be in place in time for the high school class of 2018.
Oddly, though, the Legislature provided the money for the 24-credit reform. The budget signed by Gov. Jay Inslee includes $97 million to pay for 80 additional class hours. It also adds $12 million for additional guidance counselors to help students navigate the new requirements and $12 million for “parent engagement coordinators” because parents have a role in helping their kids choose their post-high school path.
That choice is one of the most significant aspects of the 24-credit diploma. It finally fulfills the promise made in 1993 when the state’s primary education reform — House Bill 1209 — was passed. The law triggered new education standards and authorized the tests that measure students against those standards — the now-notorious WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning).
Lost in the controversy, however, was this: The test was given in the 10th grade to make sure all students had basic reading, writing and computing skills before they then moved off into the education path that met their high-school-and-beyond plan. Some students might choose a pre-college path while others might prefer a career and technical college path.
The pre-college path, however, was allowed to drive subsequent reforms while the career readiness path got lost along the way. The 24-credit system helps bring it back. All students must pass 17 credits of English, math, science and social studies. The flexibility then permits students and their parents to decide that if they want to become, say a machinist, those students can trade some arts, language and electives for course work or time at a skill center that matches their plan. Even one of three math credits can be swapped for a career-oriented class.
Rep. Marcie Maxwell, a Renton Democrat and former school board member, has become skeptical of many education reform initiatives. The 24-credit diploma, though, is not one of them.
“That’s the real reform,” she said toward the end of the first special session. “It’s one of the things we’ve done that isn’t just throwing darts.”
So why did the authorization fail to pass the Legislature? Why, instead, did lawmakers create yet another study on a topic that the state board has studied, at the Legislature’s mandate, for years?
“It came down to a large number of House Democrats didn’t want this policy to be enacted and leadership not being able to roll them,” Ordway said. “And support in the Senate is not deep.”
At least the House Democrats had bills that would have authorized the board to require the new diploma. And the House budgets included the funding, while no Senate budgets did. In the end, House Democrats demanded the funding, but there was not enough support to authorize the state board to require 24 credits.
Sen. Steve Litzow, the Mercer Island Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he thinks the fact that the money is appropriated shows clear and legal legislative intent.
“If we funded it, it’s authorized,” he said, though specific language would have cleared up any dispute.
Said Ordway: “We’re a step closer, but it’s a missed opportunity, no question.” Reform advocacy groups share the blame for not pushing hard enough, he said.
Ben Rarick, the executive director of the state board of education, said 24-credits suffers from an image problem that it is for only four-year-college-bound students and will make it even harder for others to earn a diploma. That, Rarick said, is outdated because the final program has significant flexibility for students and parents.
“I do believe, in my heart of hearts, we may have a branding problem rather than a substantive problem,” Rarick said.
The perception issues are apparent in the language creating that new study, which says “there has been a perception that career readiness and college readiness represent two separate and unequal tracks” and that career education “often appears subsumed by an emphasis on theoretical academics.”
The Legislature’s failure does not change what it has to do, what it has committed to do. HB 2261 is not just the current legislative blueprint for education reform; it was cited by the state Supreme Court in its education-funding ruling now known as McCleary. The court majority has told the Legislature and the governor that 2261 is a good plan, but it is watching how the state follows through.
“McCleary isn’t just about money — it’s about program,” Rarick said. HB 2261 “has the concept of 24 credits as a foundational part of basic education. The Legislature might need more time to deliver on the promise, but the promise hasn’t gone away.”