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Originally published Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 3:48 PM

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Guest: Loss of $40 million education waiver hits Latino students hard

The state Legislature’s failure to keep a $40 million federal education waiver will hurt Latino students, writes guest columnist Mike Sotelo.

Special to The Times

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THE blame game is in full force regarding Washington state’s unprecedented loss of its $40 million federal No Child Left Behind waiver. And while it was adults who played a purely political game, our state’s neediest students will feel the loss the most.

This is a continuing story in our state, one of just a few where the achievement gap between white students and Hispanic students has not improved the past two decades.

The adults who cared only about adults failed those students again.

This persistent performance gap is a growing concern. And it’s not just because our state has made no progress in closing the gap, but also because our Hispanic student population is increasing. One out of every five students in Washington’s K-12 public-education system is Hispanic.

In April, the U.S. Department of Education, as promised, revoked Washington state’s waiver from draconian No Child Left Behind requirements. As a result, nearly all state schools will be listed as needing improvement or failing.

This occurred because our state Legislature, at the urging of the state teachers union (the Washington Education Association), couldn’t pass a bill to require state test scores to be used as part of teacher and principal evaluations.

Lawmakers in Olympia needed to change only one word in state law, from “can” to “must,” to keep our No Child Left Behind waiver. We had, through a conditional waiver from the federal education department, one year to fix that language or risk losing control of about $40 million.

These federal Title I funds directly support high-poverty and low-income students, paying for programs like full-day kindergarten, in-school tutoring and para-educators to assist teachers in classes with challenged students. Now these programs face cuts or elimination. These are crucial programs in our local communities.

Results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and math showed the performance gap between fourth-grade white students and Hispanic students has not narrowed in the 20 years Washington students have been taking the assessment.

At a time when we are battling for more dollars for education, it’s confounding that our state lawmakers would deem control of $40 million not worthy to maintain.

This affects school districts like Yakima — where three out of every four students are Hispanic. The district has had to set aside 20 percent of its Title I funds, $1.3 million for 2014. Instead of the district using those funds for programs it deems most effective, it will have to use those dollars, for example, to hire outside tutoring companies that might not be aligned with the district’s curriculum. How does this serve students?

Additionally, almost all schools in our state will be required to explain in a letter to parents why they are considered a failing school. This will only lead to confusion among parents, especially those in the Latino community who culturally trust schools to do what’s best for their kids.

This is a disappointing moment in our state’s education history. It will certainly grab the attention of Latino families. While they traditionally vote at a lower rate than the general electorate, they could be highly motivated to vote in force when they learn supports for their children are being cut for no reasons other than political ones.

We have made great strides with education reforms. We can’t afford to go backward now.

We need to band together to encourage our state congressional members to lead the charge in D.C. to change No Child Left Behind.

Gov. Jay Inslee should call back lawmakers to Olympia to change the state law on teacher evaluations. They should right this wrong that will negatively impact our schools, teachers and most important, our students who are most in need.

Mike Sotelo is chairman of the King County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of Consolidar.

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