Several state lawmakers are trying to reduce dropout rates in Washington schools by changing the way students are punished for misbehavior.
Dozens of parents and students showed up in Olympia Monday to testify on proposed laws that aim to reduce the length of public school suspensions and expulsions, as well as create plans for expelled students to get back into school.
Right now, students fall behind on schoolwork when they are expelled or suspended, and may not be able to catch up, parents and teachers testified Monday before the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.
Additionally, getting a student back into school after he or she has had disciplinary issues can be difficult, parents and students said.
“Every time I have been suspended or expelled, I have not received any education at all – not even homework,” said student Ciera Such, who said she had trouble enrolling at schools in Tacoma after being previously expelled. “It made it harder for me to stay on track, and I felt my school didn’t want me back.”
In response to these concerns, Sen. Steve Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, has introduced a bill to limit the length of suspensions and expulsions. He said that he wants to make sure students aren’t banned from school indefinitely.
“Our whole goal is to increase the graduation rate,” Litzow said. “A big part of that is closing the achievement gap, a big part is lowering the dropout rate.”
“We can’t continue to just let these kids drift in the current system,” Litzow said.
Another bill by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, a Democrat from Bothell who chaired the Senate education committee until this year, would require schools to create a plan for expelled students to return to school and to receive lessons while they are absent. Online learning programs are one way to make that happen, while mentoring programs are another, she said.
“When a kid is expelled, they need to know what actions they need to take to change their behavior while they’re out of school, so when they come back they have actually contributed to their success,” McAuliffe said. “There needs to be a plan.”
Other bills sponsored by Litzow and Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, would require the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to collect data on students who are expelled and suspended to improve disciplinary practices throughout the state.
The state teacher’s union supports the proposals. But some school administrators expressed concern that being required to collect data on expulsions and create individualized plans for students could burden schools, as well as divert resources from children who are succeeding.
According to the state Office of Financial Management, Litzow’s bill to collect disciplinary data would cost the state $229,938 for the 2013-15 biennium, while McAuliffe’s bill to create reentry plans for students would place a $109,443,284 burden on school districts statewide during the same period.
School districts may have trouble funding additional staff to mentor and counsel troubled students, said Dan Steele, lobbyist for the Washington Association of School Administrators.
School administrators also want to make sure that misbehaving students aren’t allowed disrupt the classroom environment for others, Steele said.
“These students very clearly have a right to an education, but so do the other students that don’t have these kinds of problems,” Steele said. “Those other students do deserve the education funding to make sure they have a quality education, and they also deserve to feel safe.”
The four Senate bills dealing with expulsion and suspension polices are Senate Bill 5155, Senate Bill 5244, Senate Bill 5245 and Senate Bill 5301. Litzow said he, Rolfes and McAuliffe may end up combining their bills to create a final proposal.