Washington State Faces Challenges and Opportunities in K-12 Education, Says Dahlia Bazzaz

Seattle Times education reporter Dahlia Bazzaz discusses key education policy issues in the Washington state legislature, including increased special education funding, restrictions on student isolation rooms, and the need for more state support for school construction.

Washington State Faces Challenges and Opportunities in K-12 Education, Says Dahlia Bazzaz

As the Washington State Legislature continues to work through education bills during the current session, Dahlia Bazzaz, education reporter for the Seattle Times, shared her insights on the state of K-12 education in an interview with Hacks & Wonks.

Special education funding has been a major focus this session, with lawmakers proposing bills to remove the cap on state funding for disabled students and increase the per-student rate. "Districts do, by and large, support this legislation," said Bazzaz, though she cautioned that the final budget could differ from current proposals.

Another significant issue is the use of isolation rooms and restraints on students with behavioral problems. Bazzaz highlighted a recent bill that would ban isolation rooms by 2025 and prohibit mechanical and chemical restraints. "A lot of research has shown that it's very harmful for students and kids and it can actually worsen behavior and worsen school avoidance," she explained.

Capital construction costs have also come to the forefront, with the State Supreme Court hearing a case that could require the state to provide more funding for school construction. Bazzaz noted that many legislators recognize the problem but disagree on whether local taxpayers or the state should bear the cost.

Beyond legislative issues, Bazzaz discussed the challenges faced by school districts due to declining enrollment and the end of pandemic-era federal aid. "A lot of districts invested that money in salaries, and short-term positions, and then to fill budget gaps," she said. "So this is the result of all of that pandemic-era spending, and also a realization that students need more resources for mental health and counseling and social services."

Bazzaz also highlighted the increasing diversity of Washington's student population, with students of color now making up the majority. However, she noted that not all nonwhite student groups have seen growth, with Black and Native student enrollment decreasing in recent years.

Looking forward, Bazzaz emphasized the importance of community engagement in education policy. "Pay attention to your school board meetings," she advised. "When I see the turnout differences between a city council race or a mayor race and then the school board elections, it always makes my heart fall a little bit because these folks are in charge of a lot of money and a lot of decisions that affect students."

She also encouraged readers to educate themselves on school district budgets and finances. "If you want to know where a school district puts its values, then you just have to look at what they're spending, and where they're spending it, and on which students they're spending it on," Bazzaz said.

As Washington navigates the challenges and opportunities facing its K-12 education system, Bazzaz's insights provide a valuable perspective on the complex issues at stake.

About the Guest

Dahlia Bazzaz

Dahlia Bazzaz is a reporter on the award-winning Education Lab team at The Seattle Times, where she covers schools in the Seattle area.

Find Dahlia Bazzaz on Twitter/X at @dahliabazzaz.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

Today, I am thrilled to be welcoming back to the show: Seattle Times education reporter, Dahlia Bazzaz. Welcome.

[00:01:02] Dahlia Bazzaz: Thanks for having me again.

[00:01:04] Crystal Fincher: Excited to have you back. We talk about education basically weekly on the show. There are so many things happening in the realm of education - in our schools, with our kids and students. It's so impactful in so many ways. Right now, we're in the middle of a legislative session where they're taking up a lot of issues that will be impacting education. And I thought we would start off by talking about what is currently in play, what is happening legislatively when it comes to education in our schools. So what is top of your mind with what the Legislature is working on?

[00:01:43] Dahlia Bazzaz: Yeah, I think to set a little bit of context - this was one of the first sessions post-school closure and we didn't have any sort of form of remote schooling happen this year. So we're coming out of a lot of federal money that was offered to schools - a historic amount of federal money - as well as a lot of enrollment challenges affecting school districts and their budgets. So we came into the session hearing - lots of school districts facing financial challenges, and there's also been some topics that have crept up that have been on legislators' minds since before the pandemic. The most recent session before the pandemic started in 2019, the Legislature really took up special education and that was a huge topic. And it appears that has resurfaced again because that's been probably the biggest thing that's come up in terms of education legislation.

One thing to note here is that this particular focus on special education is mostly related to funding. And one of the things that lawmakers are working through - today was the cutoff for bills to make it out of the house of origin, so out of the House or the Senate. And some of the bills that have survived include one bill in the House and one bill in the Senate that seek to address the same problem, which is that the state funding that goes to school districts to support disabled students is capped at a certain enrollment rate. So if you have more than 13.5% of your students receiving special education services, the state will not fund beyond that in its formula. You can seek to apply for a set of funds called safety net funding, but that's an additional barrier and paperwork, and it's basically an as-needed type of pot of funds. So the bill in the House proposes gradually decreasing that funding cap until 2027, when it's eventually removed. And it also proposes increasing the - what they call a multiplier - it's basically a per student rate. So for every student, let's say if you have - for every general education student, the state will give you $2,000. If you have a disabled student, they might give you an extra $900 on top of that. So this bill would also seek to increase that multiplier. It's not the exact amount, but let's say like instead of $2,900, they're giving you $3,500 per student receiving special ed.

[00:04:23] Crystal Fincher: This is really an important thing because we already have districts who are above and beyond that cap right now. We're hearing from teachers across the state that more students are in need of more services. Certainly it takes more resources, it costs more money to educate students who have disabilities. And it's a responsibility of the state. It's a responsibility of each of these school districts to do so - we've had so many school districts talk about, They just don't have enough money to do it. They don't have enough educators, para-educators to do this. So does this look - it's continuing to move on - does it look like this is going to meaningfully help a lot of these districts who are in this situation right now?

[00:05:09] Dahlia Bazzaz: Districts do, by and large, support this legislation. I think - I've watched enough legislative sessions to know that when things come down to the final budget writing, that what makes it in can be very different from what was going through the different chambers. So as it is, I think I've heard most people who are really in the education world support getting rid of that cap completely. There have been other proposals, including the one from the Senate, that just propose increasing that cap to 15% instead of 13.5%. So it does seek to put a lot of additional funds - we're looking at for the House bill, about $410 million over the next four years. The Senate bill would add about $771 million extra dollars over the next four years. So it's a significant amount of money, but time will tell about what actually makes it in in terms of concrete policy and funding changes.

[00:06:09] Crystal Fincher: Got it. What else is being looked at?

[00:06:11] Dahlia Bazzaz: So within special education and things that are affecting disabled students, there's also a bill out that would ban isolation and isolation rooms for students. It's a pretty big problem across the state. It was documented in a recent Seattle Times investigation as well. Essentially, this bill would seek to ban isolation rooms, which is a space that educators or school staff would put a student with a behavioral problem. It has a lock in which the student cannot unlock themselves, so basically it's just locking a student in a room. There are really not many provisions about what these isolation rooms look like, and a lot of research has shown that it's very harmful for students and kids and it can actually worsen behavior and worsen school avoidance. So this legislation would seek to ban these isolation rooms by 2025. It also would prohibit mechanical and chemical forms of restraint, so think of things like different medications used to sedate students or things like handcuffs that are used outside of a criminal justice type of environment - so these are all sort of ways to regulate the response to students with any behavioral problems at school.

[00:07:32] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. This is really important. I actually - just yesterday, I believe it was Kendrick Washington from the ACLU, who I know is involved with advocating for that bill actually posted a picture on social media about some of these isolation rooms. And it looks like a prison inside of the school. And this flies in the face of evidence about what actually does work to improve behavior and integration within schools. These types of tactics are used disproportionately against BIPOC students. It just - this doesn't seem appropriate for school settings at all, and for kids at all. This is not productive discipline, it's not effective. And so I really hope this is something that does make it through.

[00:08:23] Dahlia Bazzaz: Yeah, and I'm remembering a case out of Spokane - I believe a few news outlets covered it in Spokane - where a student who is nonverbal was locked in a room that didn't have any sort of padding or whatsoever. And the student ended up hitting herself against a few walls and really injuring herself to the point of needing medical care and attention. So it's a pretty huge issue and it can cause physical harm to students.

[00:08:47] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. So we'll be keeping our eye on that one. Is there anything else that you've been tracking in the Legislature?

[00:08:54] Dahlia Bazzaz: One other big issue is capital construction costs, which is something that I think we don't talk about enough within the K-12 sphere. But right now, the State Supreme Court is hearing a case that could be the next McCleary, except on the school construction side. So McCleary was the big school funding case that changed the way that teacher salaries and all these operational parts of a school are funded - really increased how much the state was spending versus how much local taxes we're collecting from voters. And so this case came up because a tiny school district in southwest Washington called the Wahkiakum School District sued the state. It hasn't been able to pass a bond in 22 years. And when you are a district that cannot pass a bond in Washington state, you don't have a ton of options to get funding for school construction. You can't apply for the biggest state program that offers assistance, which is called the SCAP [School Construction Assistance Program] program. This program only allows you to apply for funding if you pass a bond. So you're locked out of a lot of options. And so the same attorney that won the McCleary case for the plaintiffs has taken on this case for Wahkiakum, and they're coming at it from the same angle, which is that the State Constitution says that it is the state's paramount duty to amply fund education. And they are arguing that school construction that is essential to the safety of students is - falls under that umbrella term.

So there are a couple of bills floating out there that try to address this problem. One of them is from State Representative Joel McEntire, who is an alumnus of Wahkiakum, I should say. And it is very specifically tailored to these very small school districts that struggle to raise money through bonds. It would provide about half of the construction costs for school districts that are 1,000 students or fewer. As of right now - 1:25PM - it has not passed out of its chamber of origin. But i have seen things come up in the budget out of the dead before in the final weeks of the session, so can't say for sure whether or not that's going to come through. There's also some proposals to redirect revenue from timber harvests over to school districts - also not sure where that's going to end up. But I think a fair amount of legislators see this issue as a problem - they think the state should provide more funding for school construction. But there are many who also believe that local taxpayers should be fronting most of that cost. And they don't really agree with a model like school operations where you would get, let's say, a certain amount of funds per student for school construction every year. So that's been a big topic.

The hearing for that case, the first and only, is going to be next week on Tuesday. And I have a story publishing about the Wahkiakum School District this weekend, and it just takes a look at their school facilities. I went down there. The buildings are in some dire need of some improvements. The floors of the high school are lined with asbestos that are sealed in by a layer of wax. Their fire alarm system is from the 1960s and if it's activated, you have to use a leather welding glove to disable it - it gets really hot. There are lots of broken sinks in their science classrooms - they can't do experiments inside, they have to go outside, sometimes sitting in the rain to do any sort of chemistry labs. And yeah, they haven't been able to pass a bond in 22 years. So as you can imagine, there's a lot of outstanding maintenance and leaky ceilings and just crumbling infrastructure around the buildings. So look for that story coming up this weekend.

[00:12:43] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And we record before people hear this aired, so they may not hear this for a couple of weeks - but we are recording this at the moment on March 8th. So by the time people hear this, we'll be well past this - we'll know what definitely made it out of the chambers of origin. And we will absolutely share the upcoming article that you have in our resources in the show notes so people can have all of that context.

And this is such an interesting conversation. The McCleary decision was such a big decision - messy process throughout that decision in even getting the Legislature to comply with that decision after it was made - was just its whole dramatic tooth pulling endeavor. But this is really a necessary continued part of this conversation. So many school districts across the state are reliant upon bond and levy revenue - they're reliant upon local voters opting in to fund these things throughout the district. And there was just a Marysville school levy election last month that if they wouldn't have passed that, they would have had to take immediate major steps to cut to fit within their limited budget. And so if it truly is the paramount duty of our state to fund education - whether it's special education, whether it's school funding in these capital costs - it really seems like there's a long way that we still have to go. And regardless of how this court case turns out, it seems like there is a responsibility for the Legislature to reckon with and fund this in a better and more sustainable way.

[00:14:29] Dahlia Bazzaz: Yeah, that's certainly what Wahkiakum would like to see. And there have been other proposals to - let's adjust the bond approval rates - right now it's 60% with a certain percentage of voter outcome. And for Wahkiakum, the last bond they attempted - they only got 30% approval. So it's very challenging even without making those really substantive adjustments to the law. And there's also the issue of how much the districts can tax - when you have a really small school district and you have a really poor property valuation, you're not going to raise as much money as districts that are really well-to-do. So it would take - you would tax at a way higher rate to make a third of what Mercer Island or Bellevue would make if you were Wahkiakum. So it's also another sort of issue that lawmakers, Supreme Court justices will have to contend with.

[00:15:21] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And we have to ask ourselves - what are we setting ourselves up for and what kinds of patterns are we allowing this to fall into? If people coming from districts that already don't have the financial resources that others do, then aren't able to fund new building construction costs and are not able to provide a quality education or even a quality environment for people to learn in. If they aren't able to pass levies that provide some of what lots of people would consider to be educational basics and necessities - providing things like nurses and libraries and things like that, that we expect to be part of a traditional school experience. If we are setting ourselves up to make sure that people in lower income districts just cannot enjoy, just cannot have these types of things - seems like we're just further setting in stone cycles of poverty, because we're not enabling people from these areas to have a good education - who are more reliant on that education for mobility socially, economically, and otherwise. So I hope that this gets the attention that it deserves.

[00:16:34] Dahlia Bazzaz: I hope so too.

[00:16:35] Crystal Fincher: Is there anything else in the legislature that we should be looking at?

[00:16:38] Dahlia Bazzaz: Just a couple of other things. There's a school lunch bill that would essentially extend, in a modified way, extend a Biden administration policy that expired last school year - which would offer free school lunch to all students. This state substitution would lower the threshold for when schools are required to offer free lunch to all students, regardless of income eligibility. So currently it's at about 40% or more students that would get, if they qualify, for free and reduced lunch at the elementary school level, then the entire school has to provide it for all students. And this would bump it down to 30% qualifying. So it would help a lot of schools that kind of straddle that 30-40% line, but it's not free lunch for everybody. And there's also a different graduation pathway option being proposed. So basically a different way for students to graduate high school.

[00:17:37] Crystal Fincher: Well, yeah. And certainly if you follow me online, if you have listened to prior conversations - the bill, the original bill that would have just provided free school lunch to all students in Washington, sponsored by Senator T'wina Nobles, was something that I was very excited about, that lots of people were very excited about. To me, it seems - hey, if we're mandating kids be in this space, we can provide meals. Especially with what we learned throughout the pandemic in providing this additional school meals, with the addition of SNAP funds - that actually also just expired - we made such improvements, such dramatic improvements in childhood poverty reduction and in hunger reduction. And these are such basic things. If we cannot feed our kids, if we cannot keep our kids from being hungry, what are we even doing - just as a society - is basically where I'm at. And so especially the SNAP benefit boost ending and people essentially receiving a $95/month cut after we've seen so much food inflation in the first place. We know this cut is going to be made by making choices between food, medication, and rent, and clothes. And they're going to be more kids who are hungry - who just may not have as much food as they had before to eat. And we know that that impacts students' ability to learn. I can't sit through a meeting and pay attention well if I'm sitting there hungry and then I get hangry. And to think of kids going through this in school, it just seems like we can do better. But we have a number of people who said - Hey, there just isn't the money in the budget to do that. So as I said in other settings, I will say again - if that is the case, if that is the truth, then I sincerely hope that we see these legislators who said that we couldn't afford it fighting for the revenue to be able to afford that as soon as possible. Because it just doesn't seem like we're doing our job as a society if we're enabling kids to go hungry when we have the option to do better.

[00:19:45] Dahlia Bazzaz: Yeah, I'm just sitting here and thinking about those first few months of school closures when school districts just turned into these food banks - and they were passing out food to anyone who came by - didn't have to be a student in a lot of these places. I remember talking to a lot of school districts in central Washington and South King County, and I was there when they were distributing a lot of food and goodies. And it was just a line constantly from 8AM to 5PM, so it's crazy to see the difference between now and then, and the transformation of what schools are doing.

[00:20:22] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. So we've talked about what's happening within the Legislature, but what else is happening, or what else is making news in the state of education here in Washington?

[00:20:34] Dahlia Bazzaz: A little bit at the top, but there's the enrollment patterns that emerged after the pandemic. Some of it is undefined, but we've lost a lot of students in Washington state - we've lost more than other states have on average. And a lot of districts are feeling the crunch because, of course, funds are tied to that student enrollment. And there is a bit of hand-wringing going on right now among school districts about school closures, about possible layoffs - Seattle Schools has warned about that. There could be school closures happening around the Seattle area and other parts of Washington state. And so I think that state officials, state education officials have been pushing for funding to help cushion that blow. And a lot of this is related to the pandemic federal aid running out, or the deadline coming out. They still have a couple of years to spend all those funds, but a lot of districts invested that money in salaries, and short-term positions, and then to fill budget gaps. So this is the result of all of that pandemic-era spending, and also a realization that students need more resources for mental health and counseling and social services. And so there's been a lot of addition of staff to school districts even as enrollment has been declining. And so this is kind of a crunch point right now for school districts.

I wrote recently about a landmark that we just hit - we hit it last year technically, but it's also on the books this year - but students of color are now the majority in Washington state. And this is not unique across the country - we're actually a little bit behind the rest of the nation when it comes to this, but officially now make up the majority of the state. And it's been interesting digging into the enrollment patterns within those changes because not all student groups that are nonwhite have increased. In fact, we've seen some decrease over the years. And so I wrote a story about that recently as well. And it's been interesting seeing how districts are adapting to that new reality.

[00:22:35] Crystal Fincher: And did I see that Black students were one of the groups that were decreasing?

[00:22:39] Dahlia Bazzaz: Yes, Black students and Native students are among those that have decreased - and white students.

[00:22:44] Crystal Fincher: Gotcha. Another issue that is important - just in terms of childhood development - is how much unstructured play time kids have and that's something that I think you wrote about, too. And paying close attention to the Legislature - this is the time of year that just hurts my feelings the most, because even the good things - they just get hacked to pieces and -

[00:23:06] Dahlia Bazzaz: I know.

[00:23:07] Crystal Fincher: - that hurts my feelings. And so I try to just not pay attention to - I'm not working on any legislation at the moment. So it's just like - I just want to not look, just let me know what survives and what doesn't, and I'll try and -

So we've also seen a lot of advocacy directly from students talking about what they need, whether it is mental health, special education services, or even feeling safe on campus and what they need to do that. What have you seen from students and heard directly from them about what they say they need?

[00:23:40] Dahlia Bazzaz: A lot of students have taken their advocacy directly to the state and to lawmakers. They recognize that violence on school campuses is a direct consequence of whatever laws there are in the state around who can own a weapon. And I think a lot of students are cognizant that the violence that happens on school campuses is just a microcosm of what happens outside of school campuses. So mostly they have been advocating for gun control law changes. They've also been advocating - as they have been for several years and for many different reasons - more mental health counseling, more social and emotional support and help, violence, de-escalation education in their classes. So a few different things. And even going back to 2018, 2017, we had those March for our. Lives movements that brought a lot of Seattle area students out - walking out of their schools and classes. So it's been something they've been thinking about a lot, and especially in light of the recent fatal shooting at Ingraham High School.

[00:24:42] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Now you have a perspective that is unique in the state - as someone who's covered education for a while thoroughly, who has seen things with her own eyes in a variety of different environments and circumstances, districts across the state - for people who really care about public education and who want to improve conditions but don't quite know where to start or what types of things would make the biggest difference, what would you say to someone who says, I want to help, but I'm not sure how. What would make the biggest difference?

[00:25:18] Dahlia Bazzaz: Pay attention to your school board meetings. I think every year there's a city council election, there's a school board election. And when I see the turnout differences in Seattle - and in any other city, honestly - when I see the turnout differences between a city council race or a mayor race and then the school board elections, it always makes my heart fall a little bit because these folks are in charge of a lot of money and a lot of decisions that affect students. And there just isn't the same type of advocacy and accountability for these bodies. And journalists do the best they can, but there are 300 school districts in the state and not that many news organizations covering all of them. I know reporters that double up and they cover like 20 different school districts out in central Washington. There's no way you can watchdog all of those school districts at the level that is required to really catch everything.

So I would say - get really involved in the school board politics, show up to meetings, testify to school board members - they have a lot more power than you think they do. And it is a, I think, a largely ignored body of policymakers as well, because they don't get paid very much - I think the law caps it at $4,000 in compensation. And people have been trying to change that because it can be an equity issue where only people that can sustain themselves and don't have to work a full-time job can take those positions. Do have the rare school board member that is a teacher at the same time, or can make the time or set it aside for school board activities. But it is - it is a full-time job for many people. And so I would say make sure to vote in those elections - I know that a lot of the time people ask for solutions and we just shout "Vote" at them, and it can be an incomplete answer. But I think in these cases, it's especially important to vote - because they can be separated by just like 20, 30, 40 votes - your vote really does matter in those elections.

And just read through all of the documents that they're working through. They're required to record those meetings in minutes, so definitely pay attention to what is happening on the policy level. And if you can get a school board member to partner with you, they can introduce different policies and pass them at the school board level. I think more people are becoming cognizant of that - unfortunately, because of how much chaos has erupted in school board meetings over the past several years. But it's important that even outside of these huge controversies with masking, with CRT, that we're paying attention even when it's not dominating the headlines.

[00:27:58] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. I think that is such wise advice, and I just second everything that you said. Especially because hardly anyone engages with school board races, school board meetings - so few people vote in those elections, are aware of who the candidates even are or what they stand for, that it really - because they can operate under the radar and without notice. People may be shocked to see the egregious things that are happening in school districts that they think are fine and safe and "normal" - and to see, whether it's conversations about book bans, about allowing all members of our community, including people in the LGBTQ community, all different cultures, ethnicities - it is just so important to engage in these races. And I have personally seen some shocking and alarming things happen at school board candidate forums and school board meetings. And I tell you, it just takes - three people showing up to a school board meeting can completely change the trajectory of things. It can make them reverse votes. I've been involved in movements to do that successfully, and it just doesn't take much. It just takes paying attention and engaging and getting involved. So whatever your local school district is, I think you are absolutely right in encouraging people to stay engaged, pay attention, make sure to vote in those elections. But also stay engaged throughout the rest of the year to make sure that you see what's going on - to make sure if some elements are trying to come in and usurp power or take over the district, that there are people who see that and who organize against it. Because right now a lot of it's flying under the radar and people may not notice until it's too late.

[00:29:50] Dahlia Bazzaz: Absolutely. And I would also add to that - trying to gain a knowledge of how school districts budget and just the essentials of education finance, because - and I hear this a lot and I love this phrase, but - a budget is a moral document. And if you want to know where a school district puts its values, then you just have to look at what they're spending, and where they're spending it, and on which students they're spending it on. So if you show up for those days where they're going through the budget, going through their fiscal strategy - all those things can really pay off and give you a better understanding. Don't just show up for the policy days, show up for when they're actually putting the money behind those policies.

[00:30:33] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking this time again with us today to help educate us on what is happening in education across Washington state. Thank you so much, Dahlia.

[00:30:44] Dahlia Bazzaz: Thank you for having me, Crystal - it's fun.

[00:30:46] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is co-produced by Shannon Cheng and Bryce Cannatelli. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.