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Washington’s elected leaders have an opportunity to ensure that all our residents have strong communities and the chance for a bright future. During the 2017 regular legislative session, state policymakers did pass some important bills – some of which are priorities for the Budget & Policy Center – to advance the wellbeing of Washingtonians. They include expanding access to early learning, enhancing educational opportunities for working parents, and supporting policies that would help reduce disparities in K-12 education. Yet they also left some very important policy decisions on the table to be worked out in the final budget.
The following highlights of key victories from the legislative session are great examples of what can be done to advance progress for working families for our state. As state policymakers move into a special session to negotiate the budget, they should build on these efforts to ensure the final budget secures a better future for all our residents.
Washington state could be on track to expand the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), a key program for ensuring Washington kids have a solid foundation for early learning and care. Although the expansion is not a done deal, both the House and Senate budget proposals included plans to increase the number of 3 and 4 year olds in the program. However, only the House proposal included enough slots to put the state on track to meet its goal of covering the entire population of eligible kids who are not currently being served. If the final budget includes the funding, this would represent a significant step toward making sure all kids in Washington can get a great start in life. A recent research brief by KIDS COUNT in Washington – a collaboration between the Budget & Policy Center and the Children’s Alliance – found that expanding ECEAP could reduce disparities by race in K-12 readiness for kids across the state. The final budget must fund this expansion, and it must also include funding for ECEAP child care centers to build out their classrooms and facilities to accommodate more kids.
Policymakers also took another important step to advance racial equity for kids in schools by passing House Bill 1445, the Dual Language Learning Bill. Research has shown that one of the best ways to increase student achievement for both English-speaking kids and kids who are learning English as a second or third language is through dual language programs, which are programs that offer instruction to kids in two languages. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle took the important step to pass the bill to expand the program, but House and Senate budget proposals would have funded the program at different levels. Lawmakers should follow the urging of OneAmerica, the group that developed the legislation, and invest at least $4.5 million in funding for the program.
These investments are important steps forward for kids in our state. The final budget should also make sure that Washington’s kids and families have access to high-quality, affordable child care. The House has wisely proposed to do this by increasing pay for state-funded child care workers and increasing reimbursement rates for child care centers in the Working Connections Child Care program, a program that helps parents with low incomes pay for child care so they can go to work or train for a job.
The Budget & Policy Center is helping to shape the conversation on reducing disparities in education. For more details on how an ECEAP expansion and dual language learning can reduce disparities, check out our recent Budget Beat webinar, featuring the director of education and integration policy at OneAmerica.
Everyone benefits when hardworking families have opportunities to get better-paying jobs and provide for their families. Two important bipartisan bills advanced this session that would create greater opportunities for working families. Policymakers in both parties passed House Bill 1566/Senate Bill 5347 which will allow parents on WorkFirst – Washington’s assistance and job training program for families striving to move out of poverty – to pursue 24 months of post-secondary education and training, rather than the current limit of 12 months. Research has found that people who get at least 54 credit hours of post-secondary education are more likely to be stably employed and earn more money over the long term.
Both Republicans and Democrats also worked to advance House Bill 1482/Senate Bill 5440 to prevent intergenerational poverty – a key Budget & Policy Center legislative priority – which would create a new goal for the state to reduce the number of people living in poverty by half by 2025 through an intergenerational approach. Both the House and Senate budgets included funding for the bill in their budget proposals and the House bill passed with support from both parties. Now policymakers should include the bill in the final budget.
Our team is on the ground in Olympia! View our testimony on access to post-secondary education for families on WorkFirst before the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee. You can also watch our testimony addressing intergenerational poverty.
Policymakers took important steps to provide educational opportunities for people who are incarcerated by passing Senate Bill 5069, the College in Prisons bill, which would allow people in prison in Washington to get an associate’s degree while serving their sentence. Research indicates that getting a post-secondary degree can reduce the likelihood that a person will be re-incarcerated by half. This is a huge step forward to ensure that people leaving prison have access to meaningful opportunities for a better life.
However, it is important to note that there were two significant missed opportunities with important re-entry bills that did not advance this session. The Fair Chance Act, House Bill 1298/Senate Bill 5312, would have prevented employers from discriminating against people with convictions on job applications. Policymakers also failed to pass House Bill 1783, which would reform the state’s legal financial obligations (LFO) policy. LFOs are fines and fees a person may need to pay connected with their conviction. While in prison – when a person is unable to work to earn an income – interest on unpaid fees can accumulate at an interest rate of 12 percent. The LFO reform bill would have improved this system to make it easier for people to pay of this debt and fulfill their sentence. Moving forward, lawmakers must take steps to remove the systemic barriers that exist for Washingtonians who are trying to re-enter and contribute to their communities.
We are highlighting important conversations at civic events! Read more about the need for LFO reform in this slideshow from a panel at our Budget Matters 2016 Policy Conference.
As the legislature moves into special session to write the budget, lawmakers must make sure the final budget secures a future for Washington that we all want: great schools, strong families, healthy communities. So far, the House budget proposal is a step in that direction that would secure the revenue necessary to make important investments in our communities. The Senate budget proposal, by contrast, would harm children, families and people with disabilities in Washington. Securing a strong future for our state will require leadership from both parties and the willingness to make the right investments on behalf of Washington residents. Now it is time to get to work on that important task.