Much of the rancor in the Washington legislature’s extended session this year was about how to find more money to fund public education.
However, lawmakers also want to know if Washington tax dollars are funding the best possible education for kids.
In the final budget they inserted a proviso that orders “an analysis of how school districts use school days.”
“We’re interested in setting some standards for school. How many hours do you actually go? “ asked Senator Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch), who is one of the lawmakers behind the proviso. “I get a lot of complaints from constituents about early release days. Why do they occur? Is there any predictability? Are there any standards?”
Lawmakers have given the task of finding answers to those questions to the non-partisan Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC).
JLARC provides audits to provide lawmakers with factual, objective information that they can use in crafting legislation.
“Often we get a question posed to us because it’s hard to find the answer,” said Keenan Konopaski, who is in charge of JLARC. “The purpose of the office is to answer legislative questions about how government programs are performing.”
Lawmakers have asked JLARC to find out:
- How school district’s define classroom time
- How instructional and non-instructional time is used
- How many hours are spent on instructional and non-instruction time
- How much non-instructional time is distributed annually
- How collective bargaining agreements impact these issues
“Even though we’re getting questioned, our first step is to go out and ask a lot of other people about how their program operates, what kinds of things were they doing, when they entertained different times of the day for student instruction,” said Konopaski.
KING 5’s “School’s Out” investigations revealed that many Western Washington school districts have added weekly short days to their calendars. On those days, students either report to school late, or leave early.
The reports also showed how state-approved “waivers," which allow districts to legally cut the number of days in their school year, more than tripled in a few years. Typically, schools will receive a three to five day waiver per year.
The state’s largest teacher’s union is greeting word of the JLARC study with caution.
“Really, we’re kind of neutral on it,” said Washington Education Association President Kim Mead.
Teachers and administrators have been behind increase in early release days. They say the non-classroom time is vital for teachers to engage in collaboration. That is time that teachers spend together to improve the quality of student education.
“It’s everything from planning a lesson, taking a look at what worked. It’s working with your fellow colleagues that teach in the same subject area,” said Mead. “It’s also being able to take a look at that individual student that needs special attention.”
The legislature has drastically cut back on the money it used to provide to districts to pay for teacher collaboration and training outside of traditional school hours. So districts say they’ve been forced to create that time by cutting into classroom time.
That’s sparked the debate that JLARC will help answer: Is that harmful to student learning?
“Parents want to see more accountability. They want to see their kids learning. They want them in class,” said Sheldon.
JLARC has nearly a year and a half to complete its study. It is due to report back to the legislature in December of 2014.