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April 2021
  • ‘Urgency is Everywhere’: 2022 Federal Budget Plan Includes Major Increases for Community Schools, Title I

    By Linda Jacobson | 2 days ago

    Over the past year, school districts across the country have delivered meals to families, connected them to mental health counselors and served as central hubs for information on rental assistance — operating much like “community schools” that are designed to pull together a variety of services for students under one roof.

    Now President Joe Biden hopes to expand federal funding for that approach with $443 million for the U.S Department of Education’s Full-Service Community Schools program in the fiscal 2022 budget— an increase of $413 million, almost 15 times the current level.

    “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” said Rey Saldaña, president and CEO of Communities in Schools, a national organization that works in 2,900 schools across the country to connect low-income students to a range of support services.

    While the president’s plan to more than double Title I funding for schools captured the most attention, the proposed increase for community schools and school-based mental health services further demonstrates the administration’s goal of funding programs district leaders believe will better serve disadvantaged students.

    State legislatures have increased funding for community schools in recent years, but an expansion of the federal program shows “we can do school better,” Saldaña said. The program provides funding for wraparound services, such as afterschool programs, mentoring, food, clothing and health care — and staff members to coordinate resources with nonprofits and other community agencies.

    “The reason why there is so much promise is because the urgency is everywhere,” said Elena Silva, the director of preK–12 for the education policy program at New America, a left-of-center think tank. “Suddenly everybody is feeling it — schools are the centers of communities.”

    The goals of community schools range from improved behavior and access to health services to increased school achievement. As a result, researchers’ efforts to determine whether the model has succeeded often depend on what they’re measuring. Most recently, the RAND Corp. found positive results for New York City’s community schools initiative, including improved attendance, higher graduation rates and improvements in math. But an earlier report highlighted the challenges districts face in implementing the approach, including staff turnover and competition with other reform efforts.

    A significant expansion of the program is one priority outlined in the budget proposal the administration released Friday. The plan includes a $20 billion increase in funding for Title I — up to $36.5 billion — for schools serving students in low-income families.

    Education groups welcomed the announcement, saying the past year has left many students cut off from services that they would normally receive at school.

    “Chiefs for Change has long advocated that schools serving children with the most intensive needs receive resources proportionate to that challenge,” the group said in a statement.

    But some already expect the president will have to reduce his request once it reaches Congress.

    “I’m sure they will have to scale back,” said Evan Stone, co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence. He added that along with the American Rescue Plan and the president’s infrastructure proposals, the administration is seeking a level “of federal involvement that is unmatched since the foundation of the [education] department.”

    Related

    First Phase of Biden Infrastructure Plan to Include Billions for Schools, Child Care Centers and Broadband

    Other programs noted in the preview of the president’s official budget request were:

    • A $2.6 billion increase for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, boosting funding for the program to $15.5 billion and taking, according to the White House summary, “a significant first step toward fully funding IDEA,” — one of the president’s campaign promises. The request would also increase spending on special education services for infants and toddlers by $250 million to $732 million.
    • A new $100 million grant program to support diverse schools. “Schools play critical roles in bringing communities together,” according to the document. “However, too many of the nation’s schools are still segregated by race and class, mirroring the segregation of America’s communities.”
    • $1 billion for increases in the number of counselors, nurses and mental health professionals in schools.

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  • The Week in School Reopenings: Nearly 9 in 10 Youth Have Access to In-Person Learning, But Some Big City Districts Are Only Now Returning Students to Classrooms

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | 2 days ago

    Nearly 9 in 10 students now have access to at least some classroom learning, either through traditional or hybrid models, according to a recent update.

    Until recently, however, some prominent city school districts like Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle had never opened their doors. Now they’re bringing back kids, and all eyes are on these school systems as students return to classrooms after more than a year learning from home.

    But with the school year mere weeks away from coming to a close for millions of students, and with select districts putting in-person learning on pause amid spread of a more infectious strain of COVID-19, many observers look to the summer in hopes of supporting young people’s continued learning.

    Here’s what you need to know about the state of play on school reopenings across the nation, powered by data from the school calendar tracking website Burbio.

    1 The push toward full, in-person learning continues

    Overall, just shy of 60 percent of students across the country are now attending schools that offer full, in-person learning, up from 55 percent of students last week. Every age level saw declines in remote and hybrid learning in favor of traditional models.

    Adding in-person learning models together with hybrid, 88 percent of students nationwide have access to some classroom learning.

    Nearly 9 in 10 students have access to at least some in-person learning. (Burbio)

    2 Big city school districts just now opening their doors

    Even amid a months-long countrywide trend toward reopening schools, some major urban districts have remained a key exception, sticking with virtual-only models.

    Now, many are beginning to open their doors.

    In California, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco are each returning elementary students to hybrid classrooms within the next two weeks. Also on the West Coast, Seattle and Portland now have elementary students learning part time in the classroom and plan to return middle and high school students. Newark, New Jersey returns students to classrooms this week for hybrid learning, and Milwaukee opens its doors to younger students the week after.

    Related

    Reticent Families in NYC, LA Could Prove True Test For School Reopenings, Even As Gallup Poll Reveals Overwhelming Parent Support Nationwide

    3 State lawmakers leading reopening push

    Many states have begun to enact school reopening mandates, influencing a push toward in-person learning. As reopening laws took effect in New Mexico, the state went from one of the country’s most virtual to one of its most in-person. Massachusetts also saw jumps in classroom learning for youngsters as in-person requirements for elementary schoolers kicked in.

    That trend could continue in North Carolina and New Hampshire, where mandates are set to take effect next week and the week following, respectively. West Coast states like Washington, Oregon, and California also have requirements for the return to classrooms this week and next, though they stipulate hybrid models rather than full in-person learning.

    Conversely, in Michigan where rates of COVID-19 are on the rise, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has urged high schools to put a two-week pause on all in-person learning and youth sports.

    Related

    More Lawmakers Are Leading Efforts to Reopen Some Schools By Statute — And Not Just in Red States

    4 Over half of high schoolers have the option to learn in-person

    Across the country, as schools have embarked on the task of bringing students back to classrooms, high schoolers have tended to be the last in line. This week marks something of a milestone, then, as the share of high school students attending schools offering in-person learning five days a week for the first time this year edged above 50 percent.

    5 Nearly half of students done with school by Memorial Day

    By Memorial Day, almost half of K-12 students will be on summer vacation, and fully 75 percent will be done by June 12.

    Nearly half of U.S. students will be on summer vacation by Memorial Day. (Burbio)

    With summer break mere weeks away for millions of students, and with many school districts flush with cash from the federal government, some of it earmarked for addressing learning loss, many observers are looking to summer school as the best chance to support young people’s continued learning.

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    D.C. Summer Jobs Program Will Pay Teens to Take Classes as City Combats Learning Loss

    The logistics of in-person learning next fall remain a key unknown. If and when 80 percent of students select in-person classroom instruction, the CDC’s current 3 foot social distancing guidance could pose an obstacle, as it appears to have created issues in some districts around lunchtime, busing and classroom spacing.

    Related

    Inside the Massachusetts Study that Helped Change the CDC’s Stance on Social Distancing

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  • More Black Students Return to School, But Attendance Rates Hover Below 90 Percent

    By Linda Jacobson | 7 days ago

    The percentage of Black students returning to in-person learning has inched up since January, according to the latest update on pandemic school participation from the Institute of Education Sciences.

    At fourth grade, the monthly School Survey shows the percentage of Black students in remote-only classrooms dropped from 58 to 54 percent. While white students are still attending school in person or in hybrid plans at higher rates than Black, Hispanic and Asian students, that’s starting to change.

    “We are beginning to see shifts toward full-time, in-person learning for other groups,” Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the assessment division at the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a statement. In addition, the data shows the percentage of fourth graders with disabilities in remote-only classrooms dropped from 38 to 35 percent.

    The tracker complies with the executive order President Joe Biden issued on his first full day in office. Based on a sample of 3,500 schools each at fourth and eighth grade — but representative of elementary and middle schools in general — the site includes two new elements that provide further context as the push to reopen schools continues. Average rates of attendance are included as well as teacher vaccination rates. The data on vaccinations, however, lags behind more current numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, showing that almost 80 percent of teachers, other school employees and child care providers have now received at least one shot.

    In addition on Tuesday, Biden moved up the date for anyone 16 and older to be eligible for the vaccine from May 1 to April 19.

    “We’re in a situation where I believe by end of the summer, we’ll have a significant portion of the American public vaccinated,” he said while visiting a vaccination site in Virginia.

    The wide availability of vaccines — as well as further updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that frequent and deep cleaning is no longer necessary — should allow more districts to offer in-person classes five days a week.

    On attendance, schools are seeing similar rates, regardless of whether students are learning in person, remotely or in a hybrid plan — about 90 percent on average, according to the IES data.

    But rates for Black students are below that, especially for eighth graders, regardless of how they are attending school. Fourth grade attendance rates ranged from a high of 95 percent for Asian students in distance learning to less than 80 percent for American Indian, Hawaiian and other native student groups.

    The national data, however, is likely covering up widening gaps at the local level between students with satisfactory attendance and those with “severe chronic absence,” meaning they’ve missed at least 10 percent of the school year so far, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit organization.

    She called average daily attendance a “bad, unhelpful metric” and said even chronic absenteeism rates are not a good measure of missed instructional time.

    Related

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    The national picture of attendance builds on what some states are already collecting on a monthly basis.

    • In Connecticut, attendance rates are comparable to the 2019-20 school year before the pandemic, except for students with high needs, according to a March report from the state education department. Among English learners, low-income students and those with disabilities, rates are “substantially lower” than before the pandemic, especially among low-income students who also have at least one other need, such as a disability.

    The Connecticut State Department of Education is publishing monthly attendance data, which shows an increase in chronic absenteeism rates this year, compared to 2019-20. (Connecticut State Department of Education)

    • In Ohio, districts participating in a student engagement initiative have seen an increase in students who are chronically absent.
    • In Rhode Island, the percentage of students with “excessive” absences, meaning they’ve missed between 20 percent and 50 percent of the school year, has increased from 4 percent in March 2020, before the pandemic, to 11 percent as of Feb. 11.

    Chang attributes the increases in absenteeism, in part, to the digital divide.

    “If you have internet connectivity, it is easier to show up in distance learning and be counted as showing up,” she said. “But if you don’t have decent internet access and you’re highly mobile, then you end up in real trouble.”

    She added that because “showing up is easier” in remote learning, the data on chronic absenteeism is likely underestimating how much instructional time students are missing.

    Since the beginning of the pandemic, she said, schools have emphasized daily check-ins with students to monitor their well-being. As a result, she said, “attendance became less meaningful as a measure of exposure to instruction.”

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  • There’s an App for That: How Louisiana Students Bounced Back from a Nation-leading Drop in Math Performance — and Kept Going

    By Beth Hawkins | April 5, 2021

    Since COVID-19 forced school closures last spring, a team of economists at Harvard University has been tracking the progress of students nationwide who use an online learning platform created by the nonprofit Zearn Math. Because Zearn is an app, it supplies unusually detailed and immediate data, allowing researchers to watch in real time.

    After schools had been closed for six weeks last spring, it revealed that the steepest academic drop took place in Louisiana, where student progress overall fell more than 50 percent across the board, and more than 70 percent for low-income students.

    But when Zearn co-founder and CEO Shalinee Sharma looked to see how students were faring at the pandemic’s one-year mark, she was stunned to see that Louisiana’s had posted some of the country’s largest increases in progress — the biggest overall, if the spring’s post-shutdown slump is factored in.

    Compared to 10 percent nationally, Louisiana students’ performance was up 31 percent. And more impressive to Sharma, progress rose significantly in most parishes (the state’s equivalent of counties) and all income brackets. Bucking the national trend of widening inequities in pandemic schooling, students in low-income schools were ahead 11 percent, while their high-income classmates were ahead by 13 percent and middle-income students by 41 percent.

    Sharma dashed off an email to state education officials, pointing out the across-the-board gains. “Louisiana… is a real bright spot,” she wrote. “No other state demonstrated higher gains in student progress for as many students as Louisiana did between May 2020 and March 2021.”

    Zearn is the lone academic indicator included on a pandemic data tracker created by Harvard’s Opportunity Insights, a project headed by economists Raj Chetty and Jonathan Friedman. By layering in census data, the tracker can sort participation and progress by income. The tracker provides evidence that the pandemic hasn’t just highlighted inequities among students of different demographics, but has actually widened them.

    Related

    New Data Suggest Pandemic May Not Just Be Leaving Low-Income Students Behind; It May Be Propelling Wealthier Ones Even Further Ahead

    At the same time, Sharma told The 74, the data has revealed “positive deviants.” “In other states, you’d see a more uneven map,” she says. The consistency of student progress means Louisiana is seeing what she calls “an equitable recovery,” which is tied to policy decisions.

    Cade Brumley, who took over as state superintendent of education in June, credits three factors for the progress. First, with one-fourth of households still lacking internet access, his department helped purchase mobile devices that allow students to connect regardless. Second, more than 70 percent of Louisiana students attend school in person, with only 20 percent attending virtually. And finally, his agency was quick to issue very prescriptive guidance to schools on everything from the conditions for safe reopening to doubling down on strategies that had been working, pre-pandemic, to spur student achievement.

    Before his appointment as superintendent, Brumley had overseen the state’s largest school system, in Jefferson Parish. When he took the state post, he hired one of his top administrators, Jenna Chiasson, to be assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. At the state level, the two confronted many of the same issues they had troubleshot in the early weeks of distance learning, including getting good technology that doesn’t require an internet connection into students’ hands.

    “For the first time ever, we have more devices than kids,” says Brumley.

    Still, he says, it’s a stopgap solution, so the state Department of Education also is participating in a state initiative to plug the connectivity gap, bringing internet to the 25 percent of residents who have none.

    Over the summer, Brumley hosted a “reopening roundtable” every Friday with education leaders around the state. Half the discussion could be about navigating the pandemic, he says, but half had to be about academics. “We have encouraged school systems to prioritize student learning, even through the pandemic,” says Brumley.

    Zearn was already in widespread use throughout Louisiana when the pandemic came, as one of the top-rated programs on a state list of high-quality curricula. Officials offer financial incentives to districts and schools that adopt instructional materials ranked “Tier One,” a hard-to-attain status that means they are backed by evidence of effectiveness and aligned to Louisiana’s instructional standards. Researchers at the RAND Corp. and elsewhere say the strategy shows promise.

    As outlined by the Opportunity Insights tracker, student progress nationally on Zearn fell by 29 percent during the week following school shutdowns but had bounced back and was up by more than 8 percent by late April. (Progress is student growth measured against performance in January 2020.)

    When she saw the economists’ early work showing participation and progress among high-income students remaining consistent or shooting ahead, while low-income kids disappeared, Sharma “flipped out,” she told The 74’s Laura Fay. In the four years preceding the pandemic, children of different demographics had been equally successful with the program.

    During the week that marked the shutdowns’ one-year anniversary, student progress nationwide was up 14 percent overall, with high-income students posting 28 percent, those at middle-income schools showing 20 percent progress and low-income students down 2 percent overall.

    Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation provide financial support to Zearn and The 74. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provides financial support to Opportunity Insights and The 74.

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  • Teachers Unions Lift Salaries and School Spending, Research Shows, But Evidence on Student Achievement Is Mixed

    By Kevin Mahnken | April 1, 2021

    Experts have spent decades studying the question of how teacher’s unions influence both the resources provided to schools and the learning that occurs inside them. The events of the last decade — one that began with a clampdown on collective bargaining in Wisconsin, crested in a historic wave of labor militancy, and culminated in the debate over COVID reopenings — have only magnified focus on the issue.

    Now, new research has emerged examining whether unions make for stronger schools. In a working paper released last fall, Ohio State University professor Stephane Lavertu and University of Utah professor Jason Cook examined how hundreds of Ohio school districts spent new revenues generated through local tax referendums. Those that allocated the money while engaged in collective bargaining negotiations with teachers unions were more likely to raise salaries and benefits, they found, while those under no comparable pressure from unions were more likely to hire new teachers — realizing significant student achievement gains in the bargain.

    Lavertu, whose paper has not yet undergone peer review, said that he was impressed to see the divergence in student performance between districts in various bargaining circumstances. Those under less pressure from union demands, he and his co-author found, saw meaningful academic benefits from spending just $200 more annually per pupil.

    “I remember thinking that [the learning gains] were large given that we’re talking about relatively small differences in spending,” Lavertu said. “You see them increase over the course of three years because it’s a cumulative measure, but that’s only if there’s no collective bargaining going on. If there’s collective bargaining going on, you get nothing.”

    Those findings represent some of the latest evidence linking the work of unions with the outcomes of students. Researchers have struggled for decades to uncover the ways in which organizing activity — everything from labor pacts to teacher walkouts to political lobbying — influences how schools behave, with most concluding that it tends to push for higher expenditures aimed at improving working conditions. Now they’re working to identify how those activities, often referred to by economists as “rent-seeking,” actually affect what’s going on in the classroom.

    Bradley Marianno, an education professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, co-authored a study published in February finding that stronger collective bargaining agreements are associated with higher levels of school spending and higher salaries for teachers and administrators, but not with student achievement. In an interview with The 74, he said that advances in research over the last few years have made it easier to study the relationship between union activities and education “production.”

    “Unions seek to maximize the gains of their membership,” Marianno said. “That’s their role, they get paid to do that, and they survive to the extent that they do it well. Where the rent-seeking comes in is with this long-standing debate about whether those actions to maximize gains for teachers actually lead to requisite changes in some type of student outcome, the productivity of the education system.”

    The effects of ‘rent-seeking’

    In organizing their study, Lavertu and Cook took advantage of the consistency of Ohio’s teacher contract negotiations. Districts tend to renegotiate their collective bargaining agreements every three years, with roughly one-third of the state’s districts entering a renegotiation cycle each summer.

    But that regularity interacts somewhat unpredictably with another crucial phenomenon: the timing of local tax referendums, which produce new school revenues. Because the two events aren’t synchronized, some districts begin negotiating with their teachers unions shortly after they have raised significant funding for education, while others have already spent that money by the time they reach the bargaining table.

    Analyzing nearly 1,500 elections across the state, the researchers found that in districts whose bargaining agreements expired just after a tax referendum passed — and where unions would therefore have a stronger hand in negotiating new agreements — more revenue was directed toward compensation for existing employees. In those districts, teacher salaries at the top of the pay scale increased by as much as $1,000, a greater portion of district revenue was directed toward teacher benefits, and financial reserves declined somewhat.

    By contrast, in districts that passed referendums and allocated school funding long before their teacher contracts expired, salaries did not rise by nearly as much. Instead, they hired an average of 12 new teachers in the first year after elections.

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    Those differences in spending choices, along with the somewhat better academic results for districts whose decisions about budgeting and bargaining were less connected, presents compelling evidence not just of rent-seeking in action, but also of how it trickles down into classrooms. Marianno’s paper, co-authored with Katharine Strunk of Michigan State University and Paul Bruno of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers more: In a study of collective bargaining agreements in hundreds of California school districts, the trio found that stronger agreements (i.e., those that place more restrictions on administrators’ influence over school management) were associated with higher spending on instruction and school salaries, but no achievement gains.

    “That question, in my mind, is pretty settled: Unions do, empirically, influence expenditures in meaningful ways,” said Marianno. “But what about student outcomes? I would say that…most of the literature suggests that those gains in expenditures are not associated with improvements in student achievement.”

    That finding isn’t universally held, however; another study, published last year, concluded the opposite.

    To study unions’ impact on both funding distribution and education quality, the University of Connecticut’s Eric Brunner and Amherst College’s Joshua Hyman looked at the results of school finance reforms across the country between the 1990-91 and 2011-12 school years. During that period, dozens of state legislatures dramatically changed their school funding formulas in order to remedy long-running inequalities between rich and poor districts.

    In states with the strongest unions — typically those in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific coast regions — the money sent by lawmakers found its way into classrooms, in the form of salaries and other instructional costs, on an almost dollar-for-dollar basis. In states with weaker unions, usually found in the South, only about 10 cents of every new dollar boosted education revenues; the rest was used to reduce local tax burdens. For the schools involved, that disparity mattered a great deal: Low-income districts in strong union states saw test score gains that were twice as large as those in weak union states.

    Brunner said that much of the recent research on union behavior did converge on the observation that collective bargaining drives up school spending. But he said that the academic consequences of that trend were “mixed, and context-specific.”

    “Everyone always interprets it as rent-seeking…and I’m not saying it’s not,” said Brunner. “But in this particular context, because they were so strong at advocating for keeping the money in schools versus giving it back to taxpayers, they actually got more money into schools than places with weaker unions. That led to better outcomes for kids.”

    Lavertu himself cautioned that it’s important to tread carefully when interpreting the relationship between labor activity and academic results. The relationship between union strength and working conditions is far from random.

    “You can imagine that in a district where students are poor and achieving at lower levels, there are other issues in those sorts of districts — discipline and safety, the districts’ ability to afford to recruit teachers — that might compel teachers to have stronger unions and more stringent collective bargaining agreements,” he observed. “So the causal arrow could go in the other direction.”

    A ‘natural experiment’

    Teachers unions have been a subject of contention since their inception in the mid-20th century. But the past decade has been an era of particular tumult, as political efforts to dilute their power clashed with a resurgent wave of labor activism.

    It has been almost a decade exactly since then-Gov. Scott Walker signed a slate of reforms aimed at paring back labor’s strength in Wisconsin, one of the birthplaces of public sector bargaining. The politically incendiary Act 10 legislation led to both long-term cost savings for the state and declining union membership in recent years.

    Other states, prodded by Republican leaders and unforgiving budgetary conditions in the wake of the Great Recession, followed a similar course. Michigan became a right-to-work state. Ohio nearly did the same before voters overturned the effort through a ballot initiative. Indiana drastically narrowed the range of workplace conditions that unions could bargain over.

    All of which preceded the most significant development of all: The Supreme Court’s ruling, in the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case, to forbid unions from effectively compelling workers to contribute union dues. The decision directly threatened the bankrolls and organizing capacity of teachers unions.

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    Marianno argued that the new and rapidly shifting labor environment made for an excellent research opportunity, especially when combined with rapidly improving research tools and access to test score data that has only been easily available since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

    “We saw this big ramp-up in union strength in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and for the most part, they’ve been fairly stable in education for quite a long time,” Marianno argued. “Now we’re starting to see state laws that repeal a lot of the protections that unions once had. What it creates is this natural experiment where we can start to leverage the variation we see naturally occurring out there in union strength to understand these more complex relationships.”

    It also bears mentioning that predictions of a post-Janus implosion of union viability have thus far been proven quite premature. The 2018 “Red for Ed” movement for higher teacher salaries provoked the widest-reaching wave of teacher strikes in American history. Last spring, newly elected Democratic majorities in Virginia’s state legislature passed a law permitting teachers to collectively bargain for the first time ever. And unions have seen increasing successes in organizing charter school staffers, who have traditionally and overwhelmingly been non-union workers.

    The next area of study will be the unions’ response to the COVID crisis, including their participation in reopening debates and their efforts to sway the distribution of relief funds. One proposal under consideration in Congress would earmark almost $130 billion specifically for K-12 schools, much of which would be left to districts’ discretion to use as they see fit.

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    But it will be difficult to measure the immediate impact of COVID, or the massive policy response it has provoked, given the uncertainty surrounding federally mandated standardized testing this spring; the Biden administration has announced that it will not grant waivers from testing, but states will be allowed to delay or alter their planned assessments, and given the extraordinary upheaval triggered by COVID-related closures and disenrollment, student results may be especially difficult to interpret. Lavertu, who professed excitement at the recent “mini-explosion” of collective bargaining research, said he was concerned about possible limitations in assessment data.

    “The changes in the availability of data have been massive over the last few years, and if testing stops for some reason, we’re in trouble.”

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