So school districts took the millions of dollars they had been setting aside to meet the rules of the No Child Left Behind law and opened new preschools, put more teachers into the classrooms of struggling schools, hired reading and math coaches, started programs to help parents help their kids with homework and copied successful initiatives from other districts.
But now the federal government is yanking the money back.
The U.S. Department of Education announced last month that Washington was losing its waiver from the restrictions of the No Child Left Behind law. The Legislature, it said, had failed to pass a law requiring school districts to include statewide test scores as an element in teacher evaluations.
The loss of the waiver means there are new restrictions on how schools can spend $40 million in federal dollars each year. Beginning with the next school year, that money must now be set aside to transport kids to more successful schools or to pay their tuition in private tutoring programs or run specific teacher training.
Districts like Tacoma, Yakima and Spokane are scrambling to figure out how to keep their successful programs without the federal dollars to pay for them.
"I don't think there's any way that it's not going to hurt kids," said Lorna Spear, director of early learning and intervention for the Spokane School District. "Our schools were starting to get some traction and some improvement and now we are going to cut the funds out from under them."
Spokane has been using its extra $1.8 million to get more teachers into struggling schools to help with reading and math. Some kids received an extra period of math; others got help right in the classroom.
An Associated Press analysis of the Title I dollars going to Washington school districts found all but six of Washington's 295 districts received extra money because of the federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. Most had flexibility over thousands of dollars, and about nine districts stand to lose control over a million dollars or more.
The Yakima School District has been using its $1.3 million to target just a few schools for improvement.
Two years ago, the district decided Barge-Lincoln Elementary School could use some special attention, Superintendent Elaine Beraza said. So they took every idea they had tried successfully at another failing school and applied it to Barge-Lincoln. They lengthened the school day, added teachers to help with math and reading, helped teachers collaborate as teams to improve instruction and watched student data.
In just one year, after nearly a half-million dollar investment, students at Barge-Lincoln more than doubled their passage rates in math and reading on statewide tests at most grade levels.
The district used the rest of its "waiver dollars" to spread some teacher and student support to 24 other schools, with a focus on math instruction. Test scores in the lower grades are on the rise across the district.
"We felt like we made great use of the dollars," Beraza said.
She said she was disappointed that the Legislature failed to retain flexibility for Title I dollars.
"No one was thinking about our kids," she said, adding that Yakima is already using test scores in teacher evaluations. Federal dollars come with strings attached, and this time, the trade-off was worth it, Beraza said.
Yakima is seeking money from another federal grant to continue to help kids at Barge-Lincoln. The district had planned to expand the program to more schools next year, but that idea is off the table.
The Tacoma School District doesn't expect it will be able to make up for the loss of control over $1.8 million next year. The money has been spread over the district for two initiatives: new preschool programs at five schools and one instructional coach at each of the district's 52 schools.
Ten preschool classes helped 200 more kids from low-income households get ready for kindergarten, and thousands of kids were influenced by the work of the instructional coaches, district spokesman Dan Voepel said. Not all the money for the instructional coaches came from Title I dollars, but Voepel says some people are going to lose their jobs.
"I don't know how it's all going to shake out," he said.
The state's largest teacher's union, which advocated against the change in state law that would have let Washington keep the waiver, believes some districts will get along fine without the flexibility.
Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, says many districts do not spend all their Title I money each year and carry it over. And if they don't spend the money they are forced to set aside for transportation and outside tutoring, they can spend it on whatever they want late in the school year.
"That's not to say our schools are fully funded," Wood said. "But districts may be threatening unnecessary cuts."
Seattle, the state's largest school district, is the biggest recipient of Title I dollars. Seattle Public Schools will lose the most without the waiver, more than $2 million. But school officials say the district's size and circumstances make the loss less painful.
The district expects to get a million dollar increase in Title I dollars next year and an increase in the state's Learning Assistance Program of about $3.5 million.
That will allow the district to continue on the same education reform path, said Michael Stone, who supervises the Title I and LAP programs for the district.
"We're going to be pretty lucky," Stone said.