Commentary: While students struggle with math and reading, Democrats focus on recess


Students in our K-12 public schools are clearly struggling with the “three Rs” — reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic.

Only 32.6% of the fourth graders and eighth graders tested in “English language arts” and mathematics performed at grade level in the latest Washington Assessment of Student Learning. That’s one in three, down significantly from the pre-pandemic level.

This is no fluke. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found our state sank in the same four categories over the past decade.

It also is not a national trend. In 2013, for instance, Idaho’s fourth and eighth graders were well behind their Washington counterparts in math and reading. By 2022, they had caught up and moved ahead in three categories, remarkably so at the eighth grade level.

Washington fourth graders who don’t qualify as low-income had much better reading scores in the latest assessment than those who do. That is no consolation, but rather another confirmation of something Republicans have been saying since mid-pandemic: The racial and economic disparities resulting from the failure of remote instruction are the equity issue of our time.

Every legislator knows providing for K-12 education is the paramount duty of state government. We can all see the test scores of our fourth and eighth graders. Too many of Washington’s public school students seem to be going backwards academically while children in other states move ahead.

The Senate’s majority Democrats need to work with Republicans in confronting this obvious learning loss. Some of them, including the chair of the Senate K-12 committee, joined us in proposing Senate Bill 5248. It would have used unspent COVID-19 relief dollars to provide matching grants to school districts, to fund high-quality tutoring and rigorous extended learning programs.

Unfortunately, SB 5248 didn’t make it out of committee by a Feb. 24 deadline, although Republicans are continuing to push forward on fully funding this learning recovery effort.

Instead, the first K-12 bill Democrats brought to the floor of the Senate this year was about another “R” that is less important than reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic: recess.

While two-thirds of our fourth and eighth grade students aren’t at grade level in skills they will someday need for basic living, Senate Democrats boldly confronted the fact that state law doesn’t specify a minimum amount of daily recess.

On Feb. 20, they passed Senate Bill 5257, which would generally require at least 30 minutes per day for grades K-6. The education committee in the House of Representatives plans to move the bill forward at its March 7 meeting.

Republicans have nothing against kids getting fresh air and being physically active. We simply believe policies about recess can and should be handled by local school boards.

Democratic overreach into Washington’s 295 school districts is not new. We saw it in 2020, with the passage of legislation that dictated the content of a district’s sex education curriculum.

This year Democrats are also, and again, meddling in what students are taught. SB 5462, passed Feb. 28 on a party-line vote, is about forcing school districts into adopting “inclusive learning standards” and selecting “inclusive instructional materials that include the histories, contributions, and perspectives of historically marginalized and underrepresented groups.”

These marginalized and underrepresented groups, according to the bill, would include Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islander Americans and LGBTQ people.

There is no question these groups have made contributions and are part of our history. However, it’s curious how SB 5462 would allow just one state commission — the LGBTQ commission — to have a direct hand in influencing the “inclusive” learning standards, while leaving out tribal representatives and the state commissions on Hispanic affairs, African American affairs, and Asian Pacific American affairs. That seems like the opposite of inclusion.

Instruction about marginalized and underrepresented groups has its place in our schools. The histories and contributions of people like Centralia founder George Washington, an African American, absolutely deserve to be taught. But like recess, instructional materials should be decided by local school boards. They are closer and more accountable to parents.

The pandemic was especially tough for special education students. I’m encouraged by the progress this year toward increasing support for them and their families, represented by SB 5311, which is headed to the House. And again, Republicans are pursuing a different path to get the Legislature to the right outcome on learning recovery funding.

A Senate Republican priority this year is to “reboot” education. For the foreseeable future the priority should be on creating opportunities for our students to overcome the setbacks related to learning loss. Unfortunately, Democrats seem bent on pushing the K-12 funding mechanism farther from constitutional compliance, and they are pre-empting districts on decisions like recess and inclusion when the focus should be on ensuring educational equity. We must do better.


Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.