As school begins across Washington, let’s not forget the importance of local control

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August 18, 2021

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

To say that 2020 was “challenging” would be the understatement of the year to school staff and families all across the state. As the father of two middle school-aged boys, the limited school instruction last school year and minimal extracurricular activities were difficult for my family, like most others across our state and country. Due to ongoing issues with COVID-19 pandemic, school staff and families continue to adjust to changing new requirements and guidelines. More and more of these mandates, unfortunately, are coming from the state level at the expense of local school district flexibility.

The importance of school district governance

As school staff and families across our state begin the school year, it is important to remember the significant taxpayer investment in our public-school system. Because so much focus has been placed in recent years on state education funding, many people may not realize the full authority a school district maintains and the important role local school boards have in developing priorities, approving annual budgets, and overseeing operations. School districts are actually local governments, not state agencies. They are governed by their own elected boards and administered by chosen school superintendents. Districts receive the majority of their funds from state dollars on a per-student basis along with local and federal funds. School districts should prudently invest their taxpayer dollars (local, state, and federal) to implement their programs, negotiate sustainable contracts with their employees, and manage their operations.

Sen. Hawkins speaks in committee mtg

As the ranking Republican member on the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, I work closely on statewide education issues. Prior to being elected to the Legislature, I served for nearly 10 years on the North Central Educational Service District and Eastmont School District boards.

Is local control slipping away from schools?

State actions during the COVID pandemic and in recent years at the Legislature have called into question the long-held authority of our locally elected school boards. As a former school board member myself, I took great pride in working with community members, school administrators and board colleagues to assist the Eastmont School District during difficult times. Local control guided my work, but many recent state actions have demonstrated an erosion of this control. Until recently, Governor Inslee and state Department of Health seemed to be encouraging school closures across our state with limited flexibility by school districts. Districts were seemingly waiting to hear from state-level agencies about what they could or could not do within their districts.

While starting the school year brings joy to many children and their families – and it certainly will this year given the limited opportunities last year – it is prudent to pause a bit to reflect on how significantly some new policies and laws are affecting our communities. I point this out not to be negative but to encourage all of us to recognize the changes occurring before us:

  • Mask Mandate: Governor Inslee issued a statewide mask mandate requiring face coverings of all students and staff regardless of vaccination status and local COVID statistics (removing this decision from school districts);
  • Vaccine Mandate: Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has urged Governor Inslee to implement a COVID vaccine mandate for all school employees (apparently not requested by local superintendents). They are holding a press conference today (August 18) at 2:30 p.m. – watch here;
  • Mandatory Sex Education: The Legislature required mandatory sex education in all school districts, despite many people’s preferences that parents and school boards be involved (minimizing options available to communities); and
  • Mandatory Equity Training: Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 5044, mandating equity training during one of only three non-teaching school district professional learning days (limiting flexibility during local school training).

School districts do not have a choice regarding implementation of these policies. More directives are likely on their way in the months and years ahead. Regardless of whether you support these topics, our locally elected school boards and communities should be allowed to seek public comment, engage in community dialogue, and make their own decisions. In many ways, unfortunately, our communities are gradually losing their ability to guide the decisions of the school boards they elect, despite the significant taxpayer investment (see charts below) directed to their schools. In my opinion, this approach to governance – more statewide mandates and less local control – is fundamentally flawed.

2021-23 operating budget chart

The Washington Legislature dedicates nearly half of its $59.2 billion operating budget to K-12 education. With so many taxpayer dollars ($28.2 billion) provided to education, state lawmakers and school districts must demonstrate a responsible use of this funding.

School districts confronting “learning loss” and other challenges due to the COVID pandemic

The educational impacts from this past COVID year will likely burden students for many years to come. This is especially true for students with learning disabilities or those still learning to read. The limited in-person instruction and the less-than-ideal remote learning from last year could take several years to overcome, not to mention the increasingly serious mental health challenges for students all across Washington. Fortunately, the districts have received additional funding through federal stimulus and recovery efforts distributed earlier in 2021. Even with this additional financial support, there is no doubt that school districts are facing serious challenges. While we all have the right to be critical, we should also make sure to share any suggestions in a thoughtful way. Please take the time this school year – especially early this year – to lift up the hard-working school employees (administrators, teachers, and support staff) who are on the front lines helping our state fulfil its “paramount” duty. As a legislator, I believe it is time to think about transformational changes that could help every student across Washington. I’m calling on my colleagues in the Legislature to think differently about how to improve our educational delivery system because if we cannot do it now, as we prepare to pull out of this pandemic, when will we ever be able to? At a minimum, we cannot forget the importance of local control.

Average per student education funding chart

Over the past several years, per-student education funding in our state has significantly increased. This is partially due to state funding increases in response to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, as well as school districts seeking increased taxes in local school levies. Families across Washington deserve a strong return on this investment.

Wishing families a great start to a new school year!

Despite the challenges ahead for students and staff, the start of a new school year brings great hope and excitement all across our state. Getting students and school staff interacting together in-person is much needed. I greatly look forward to school open houses, fall sports, and parent-teacher conferences. Good luck to the school staff as you begin the new year. I wish all families a happy and safe start! 

Listen to my recent local radio interviews

During the interim when the Legislature is not in session, I call our local radio stations monthly to participate in live interviews about legislative issues. If you'd like to hear my most recent interviews, click on these links for KOHO and KOZI. A few weeks ago, I participated in a full-hour interview on KPQ’s “The Agenda” with Dave Bernstein. We discussed a variety of topics, including wildfires, transportation, police reform and more. Click on this link to listen to my Full KPQ Interview. If you have any questions, please contact me anytime.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your 12th District state senator.



Brad Hawkins

State Senator Brad Hawkins
12th Legislative District


107 Newhouse Building - P.O. Box 40412 | Olympia, WA 98504-0412
(360) 786-7622 or Toll-free: (800) 562-6000