Early legislation by a new Washington state senator — a trailblazing former foster youth who rose up from homelessness to lead her Tacoma area district in the capital — has passed out of the Senate with unanimous bipartisan support, a bill to help the most vulnerable children get through school.
In an emotional speech greeted by applause from the floor, state Sen. T’wina Nobles (D) thanked the Black legislators who came before her and praised her Senate colleagues for supporting her first bill, which would require all K-12 public schools to offer on-campus assistance for students in foster care.
Under Nobles’ Senate Bill 5184, which passed out of the Senate on Feb. 3, there would be a contact in each elementary, middle, and high school building to coordinate services and resources for kids who’ve been removed from their parents’ homes. Schools would not be required to hire new staff, but would have to designate an existing employee as a point of contact for foster youth. That person would know which students were in foster care and fully understand their rights under state and federal law.
Peggy Carlson, foster care program supervisor at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, testified in January before the Senate’s education committee in favor of the legislation. She said current law requires a district-level liaison, who often manages other programs and usually works out of district offices, resulting in little in-person contact with students.
“We believe the framework created by this bill will dramatically increase support for students academically, socially and emotionally,” Carlson said.
Allison Krutsinger, deputy director of government affairs at the Department of Children, Youth and Families also testified in support of the bill, saying it created a partner in the education system and created “necessary connection, collaboration and consistency in the school setting for our children and our youth.”
Nobles’ bill so far does not have costs attached, and still needs to pass the House and be signed by the governor before becoming law.
Nobles, who beat Republican incumbent Steve O’Ban in November for a seat that has been red since the 1960s, is the rare lawmaker who survived a childhood of homelessness and multiple moves through the foster care system to go on to obtain a college and master’s degree. She was until recently also president and CEO of the Tacoma Urban League.
In a state that is 5.6% African American, Nobles is currently the only Black woman in the Washington Senate and only the second in its history. Just before her bill reached a final vote in the Senate, Nobles told her Senate colleagues about growing up in foster care and the critical assistance she received along the way. In high school, there were people who stepped up and “made sure that I had track shoes when I ran for track,” she said. And later on, when she became a young mother, they “made sure I participated in a transitional living program and could learn how to pay my bills, pay rent, get an apartment.”
After the vote, Nobles rose again to recognize John Ryan, who was elected in 1920 as the first Black person to serve in the 28th District, which covers parts of Tacoma and is now represented by Nobles. She also acknowledged former state Sen. Rosa Franklin, the first black woman to serve in the Washington state Senate. Franklin, now 93, represented parts of Tacoma during her tenure from 1993 to 2010.
Nobles went on to recognize others who were important to her, as she shaped future policy in Washington: Manny Ellis, a Tacoma man killed in police custody last March, her four children, and “other youths experiencing foster care, moms who are teen moms, single moms and other community members who are experiencing homelessness.”
Several senators — Democratic and Republican — welcomed Nobles to the Senate last week and offered praise for her first piece of successful legislation.
“The needs are many, and sometimes it’s easy for the foster care populations to fall through the cracks,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican representing Port Orchard. “I’ll rest well tonight knowing that we have a noble watchman — watchwoman — for the task.”
In an interview with The Imprint after her victory in November, Nobles said her parents met in California, where both served in the military. Her family’s troubles began when her mother became addicted to crack cocaine in the 1980s while still in uniform.
Beginning in elementary school until she graduated from high school, Nobles experienced a dizzying number of moves, including in and out of shelters in the Columbus, Georgia, area and between two foster families’ households.
In her speech last week, Nobles said she would use her time in office to bring people together, “the haves and the have not, the housed and the unhoused, the faithful and the hopeless, the Democrats and the Republicans.”