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Originally published Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 4:08 PM

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How to solve summer learning loss and close the opportunity gap

A pilot project to extend the school year by 20 days in 10 elementary schools has potential to relieve summer learning loss, which sets students back.

Times editorial columnist

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State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, has an excellent idea, and the Legislature should act quickly so lawmakers do not forget about it before the next session.

Billig’s legislation, Senate Bill 6163, has solid bipartisan support because the proposal looks at summer learning loss, a documented problem that has drawn serious academic attention.

Two young students entering kindergarten, one from a middle-class home and the other from a low-income family, will learn at roughly the same rate through the school year. What happens — or does not happen — during the summer break can be huge.

One family’s reading sessions, trips to the library, going to camp and visits to museums reinforce what the child has learned. The other student can lapse back academically as much as two months.

The cycle is repeated through first, second and third grades, with a particular toll on reading and math skills for low-income students. By the end of the fifth grade, the student can lag behind academically by as much as two or three years.

Billig is determined to close the education and opportunity gap for students, and he has marshaled the background material to argue that two-thirds of the gap is summer learning loss.

Senate Bill 6163 would provide three years of funding for 10 high-poverty elementary schools to add 20 days to their school year, starting with the 2015-16 school year. Eligible schools could go a month longer, start a month earlier, or divide it two weeks and two weeks.

Schools must have at least 75 percent of the student body on free-and-reduced breakfast and lunches, which covers more than 250 elementary schools across Washington. And at least 70 percent of the faculty and classified staff, and principal, would have to endorse a detailed plan.

The pilot program would be subject to annual review by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, with reports and a final analysis to the governor and Legislature.

The extra 20 days would be regular school, right down to rolling out the yellow buses, and having the nurses, cooks and counselors on hand. Regular school, with no stigma about remedial work or catching up to qualify for promotion to the next grade.

The education opportunity gap is real, and academic remediation is expensive over time, and it takes a toll on students. Students struggling by the end of middle school are on the cusp of academic fatigue and failure.

Billig has assembled studies that date to 1906 to document the toll that summer learning loss has taken — for generations. A 2010 study by Johns Hopkins University put a contemporary edge to those findings.

Billig quite appropriately sees this use of state funds as a wise investment in the future of Washington children, but also saving even more money down the road.

So far, the measure does not have a fiscal note about expenses. If cost becomes an issue in Olympia, Billig said he is open to offering the Summer Knowledge Improvement Pilot in six schools, not ten.

Two other Senate bills, SB 6209 and SB 6336, provide complementary expanded learning opportunities through community programs. Billig’s approach is school based.

For all of the potential and imaginable issues with teachers and staff looking forward to an extended break, summer employment or professional certification courses, I suspect the students in qualifying schools might be delighted.

Students from families struggling to survive in the economy can see school as a source of stability and predictable meals, and as a supportive setting.

No one knows the frustration and embarrassment of having to catch up better than the students. They want help and Billig’s timely legislation offers help.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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