Policy committees finish work ahead of session's first cutoff Monday
The Legislature's policy committees wrapped up their work this week ahead of the Monday policy committee cutoff deadline. That date means policy-related bills must be voted out of their committees in order to continue in the legislative process for this session.
The Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee on Tuesday held its first public hearing of the session for trustee confirmations. From the community and technical college system, committee members heard from Hannah Stoddard, student trustee at Bellevue College, and Athmar Al-ghanim, student trustee at Edmonds College. The committee voted to approve the two appointments later in the hearing. They now move to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.
House Appropriations takes up corrections education expansion bill
Feb. 11 — The House Appropriations Committee took up SHB 1044 at its meeting Thursday, hearing the fiscal impacts of the “Creating prison to postsecondary education pathways” bill. The legislation would expand educational opportunities in the state’s prisons. Eight community colleges served 7,037 incarcerated students in the 2019-20 school year in programs like GED® preparation, high school completion, and workforce associate degree options. HB 1044 would add associate and bachelor’s academic degree options to the list of allowed programs. The House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee heard the bill Jan. 20 and voted it out of committee Jan. 25.
Shane Sweetman, a student at Centralia College at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, testified in favor of the bill from the prison. He earned a GED® and enrolled in a Diesel Technology associate program while incarcerated. He is now working on an academic associate degree and was awarded a Second Chance Pell Grant.
“Even after doing vocational programs, I still felt helpless, useless, that I wasn’t valuable. This chance has been awarded to me and with a Second Chance Pell. Going into an associate program has allowed me to realize that [I am] valuable and that I am worth something,” Sweetman said. “Due to the help from the faculty, and the time I have to gain knowledge and learn about who I am, I have nothing but the utmost value within myself. And I know that due to this, it’s going to allow me to be successful both financially and in stature, but success for myself, as well.”
Pat Seibert-Love, the corrections education policy associate with the State Board, told the committee that the primary factor leading to people returning to prison is the lack of family living-wage employment. Education, she said, leads to employment.
“We deliver high-quality college accredited programs that focus on high-wage, high-demand jobs with the ability to lead to sustainable living-wages,” she said. “This provides for healthier families and communities, reduces recidivism, and closes one prison at a time.”
Testifying on behalf of the Department of Corrections, Loretta Taylor, education services administrator, expressed concern that the bill did not fully address technology and staffing needs. The additional educational opportunities provided in the bill, though, would benefit people incarcerated and staff.
“We know that this impacts our population positively — impacts prison culture and helps make our prisons safer for both the incarcerated and for staff,” she said.
Mental health expansion pilot program bill heard in House College and Workforce Development
Feb. 8 — Building on the work of the Community and Technical College Counselors Task Force’s report, the House College and Workforce Development Committee took up HB 1468, a bill that would establish a pilot program to increase student access to mental health counseling and services. The program would provide grants to eight community and technical colleges to implement one or more strategies identified in the task force's report in order to increase access. Members of the task force reported their findings to the committee during a work session on Jan. 14.
Rep. Vandana Slatter, the bill’s prime sponsor and chair of the committee, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated existing mental health needs on campuses. She hoped, though, the pandemic could be used for action that would not have otherwise been taken. In her testimony to the committee, Slatter described the diversity and unique needs of community and technical college students.
“When you think about that environment of having a child at home, financial aid, maybe working a job or two, and dealing with a lot of issues and a lot of barriers in your life, and then having to study — I can’t even imagine the stress,” she said. For the 2019-20 school year, 25% of students reported having a dependent, 39% received need-based financial aid, and 47% worked.
Slatter continued: “It not only suggests that we need to do what we can to make our education system safe for learning and healthy for learning, which is what this bill attempts to do, but also recognize the extraordinary resilience and extraordinary commitment and determination that we’re seeing in our students to get an education and find a better pathway to a better life.”
Joe Holliday, the director of student services for the State Board, spoke in favor of the bill. He told the committee the task force identified eight best practices, and a pilot program would closely align with the report’s recommendations.
“A pilot program to further implement the best practices will not only help the students served in the pilot, it will show the way for all our colleges seeking to better support students through counseling and wraparound student services,” Holliday said. “Student success is our common goal.”
Dr. Rebekah Woods, president of Columbia Basin College, testified that counselors are seeing an increase in students seeking mental health support, issues compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. She described how her college would expand mental health services if selected as a pilot college under the bill.
“If Columbia Basin College was selected as part of the pilot, we would be able to expand the availability of counseling services by contracting with mental health providers or tele-behavioral health providers to provide additional access for our students during evenings and weekends,” she said. “We would also be able to bring mental health first aid training to our campus so all employees and students know how to recognize the signs of mental health and substance abuse issues in our students so they could then quickly connect those students with the support systems available on our campus and in our community.”
Heidi Matlack, a licensed mental health counselor and faculty counselor at Yakima Valley College, reiterated testimony that mental health needs were already on the rise and only intensified with the pandemic.
“Last week I met with a struggling student. He described the symptoms he was feeling as if no one had experienced them before; as if no one would understand. He had no idea that his symptoms had a name: anxiety. Giving him validation, resources for academic support, mindfulness and coping skills, along with a follow-up appointment gave him a sense of control” she said. “He made that appointment with me that day to find out how he could drop his classes. Following our appointment, he understood he did not have to drop his classes; he needed support to succeed in them.”
Testifying last, Nicole Wilson, a licensed mental health counselor and department coordinator for the counseling center at Highline College, testified in favor of the bill, but asked the committee to consider colleges with limited resources on campus and in the surrounding community. The bill requires colleges in pilot selection process to demonstrate existing partnership with community organizations in addition to showing how it would implement at least one of the strategies identified in the task force’s report. Wilson expressed concern that colleges in more underserved areas would not be as readily able to show those partnerships.
“Pilot funding for a school with only one counselor, but allow them to increase their staffing and services, which would include implementation of all eight best practices, including developing partnerships with community agencies for continuum of care,” she said.
Wilson also stressed the importance of having counselors as on staff college employees and not outsourcing all mental health services to community-based organizations.
“Our [community and technical college] students, like our four-year college counterparts and K-12 schools, deserve to have counselors embedded and a part of the college community; counselors who can provide holistic counseling by assisting students on navigating their internal and external barriers to their college success,” she said.
Coming up next week
With just one week before the fiscal committee cutoff deadline, members of those committees will be busy taking testimony on bills' fiscal implications and voting on ones they'd like to see continue in the legislative process.