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June 2021
  • Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case Over Transgender Students’ Bathroom Rights, Letting Lower-Court Victory for Gavin Grimm Stand

    By Mark Keierleber | June 28, 2021

    The Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear a high-profile feud over the rights of transgender youth in public schools, letting stand a lower court victory for a Virginia student whose school barred him from using the boys’ restroom.

    The decision comes a year after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Gloucester County School Board discriminated against Gavin Grimm, the transgender student, when it prevented him from using school restroom facilities that align with his gender identity. Instead, Grimm was offered a separate, single-stall restroom, a move his attorneys argued was degrading and stigmatizing.

    The Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case lets Grimm’s Fourth Circuit victory stand but it does not establish a national precedent at a moment of heightened contention over the rights of transgender students in schools across the country. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito indicated in the order that they would have heard the case in which the Fourth Circuit found that Gloucester educators had violated Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in public schools, and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

    Related

    Ed Department: Title IX Protects Gay and Transgender Students

    The Supreme Court was set to hear the case in 2017 but instead sent it back to the lower court after the Trump administration reversed Obama-era federal guidance protecting transgender students’ rights to use public school bathrooms that match their gender identity.

    Grimm, now 22, cheered the news on Monday on Twitter after fighting in court for six years.

    “There are just too many people to tag,” Grimm tweeted. “Too many people played integral roles in our success and too many people who loved me so much. I have nothing more to say but thank you, thank you, thank you. Honored to have been part of this victory.”

    “Transgender students belong in our schools,” Joshua Block, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Grimm, said in a news release. “The court once again ruled that school’s obligation to create an environment that is safe and welcoming for all students includes transgender students.”

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  • Education Secretary Calls on Charter Leaders to Bolster Teacher Diversity, Eliminate For-Profit Operators

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | June 22, 2021

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    As keynote speaker at the National Charter School Conference, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona made the case to school leaders on Tuesday that building a diverse teaching force should be a key component of pandemic recovery efforts.

    It was the first time Cardona had spoken directly to the charter school community since assuming his role as secretary, and he took the occasion to remark on how the White House is working to bolster the pipeline for more Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian educators to enter the workforce — and how charter leaders can help that effort.

    The American Families Plan, part three of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, allocates $9 billion to help schools recover from the pandemic, said the secretary, including money earmarked for educator training scholarships at historically Black colleges and universities, grow-your-own paid teacher residency programs and other strategies to recruit and train teachers of color.

    “These investments will provide a critical pipeline of well-prepared and diverse educators to students all across America,” said Cardona.

    Charter schools already outpace traditional schools in their proportion of teachers of color on staff. The secretary’s remarks were pre-recorded and there was no opportunity for audience members to ask questions or interact.

    While Cardona himself is seen as more neutral toward charter schools, his boss’s recent relationship with them has been divisive. While President Biden served as vice president during the Obama administration, which was highly supportive of charter schools, he then adopted a more skeptical stance during his 2020 presidential campaign when he promised to end federal funding of for-profit charter schools. In May, he became the first president since the federal charter school law was passed in the 1990s not to issue a proclamation recognizing the publicly funded independently run schools during National Charter Schools Week.

    Related

    WATCH — Reflecting on 30 Years of Charter Schools: Former President Clinton Joins Panel of Education Experts to Assess the Movement and the Moment

    The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, however, read the secretary’s remarks as something of an olive branch. “We are thrilled that Secretary Cardona took time out of his busy schedule and made a point to talk to charter school teachers and leaders today. His appearance alone sends a strong signal,” Nina Rees, president and CEO of the Alliance wrote in an email to The 74. “Obviously, we would love to know more, but believe the Secretary to be sincere in his commitment to serving the interests of all kids — regardless of the type of school they attend.”

    On the teacher diversity issue, Cardona said charter school leaders can ensure that the sector continues to make further strides.

    “You play an important role in advancing efforts that ensure every child is taught by an outstanding teacher,” he told the audience of charter leaders. “I encourage you to support grow-your-own programs that create a community-based pipeline into the profession by including teaching as part of your career in technical education pathways in secondary schools.”

    While research shows that all students benefit from having teachers of color — with students of color experiencing the largest gains — the nation’s teaching corps continues to poorly reflect its students. While over half of K-12 students are Black, Hispanic, Asian or Indigenous, the same is true for only approximately 1 in 5 teachers.

    Related

    Colorado District Uses High School Apprentices to Grow Its Own More Diverse Teacher Workforce

    High levels of stress reported by teachers over the course of the pandemic have spurred fears of a national educator shortage, but as of yet those fears have largely not materialized.

    Related

    Analysis: COVID-19 Raised Fears of Teacher Shortages. But the Situation Varies from State to State, School to School & Subject to Subject

    The education secretary also issued a warning, expressing concerns over for-profit charter operators, which tend to serve lower proportions of disadvantaged students and have a history of poor performance.

    “When it comes to student success, it’s important that we also take steps to ensure greater transparency and accountability in the charter school sector,” said Cardona.

    That means “taking active steps to serve students from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds, providing meaningful access to instruction for students with disabilities and multilingual learners and assur[ing]… that none of our resources are used to support for-profit operators.”

    But despite the stern footnote — delivered with his usual grin — the former Connecticut teacher and principal stressed his appreciation for educators’ efforts over the course of a trying year and closed on a unifying note.

    “We can only do this work well if we do it together.”

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  • At Ed Dept. Equity Summit, Marten Announces Plans to Address ‘Pressing Needs’ of Students with Disabilities

    By Linda Jacobson | June 22, 2021

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    The U.S. Department of Education plans to make the needs of students with disabilities a higher priority when schools fully reopen in the fall, Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten said Tuesday during a virtual summit focusing on equity.

    The department is preparing a document, coming later this summer, that “will address some of the most pressing needs and the concerns elevated by families, advocates and educators to provide clarity and direction and attention to this community,” Marten said during the event.

    Since the beginning of the pandemic, districts across the country have faced lawsuits and angry parents complaining that students with disabilities missed many of the services they were entitled to receive while schools were closed.

    But some districts prioritized students with disabilities in reopening efforts. Rosemarie Eller, school board president in the White Plains Public Schools in New York — one of several educators featured during the panel discussions — described how her district held in-person school for students with disabilities as much as possible this year to “maintain the continuity of their educational experience.” Leaders held “coffee talks” with parents so they could become better acquainted with administrators and develop trust.

    Denise Stile Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, called Marten’s announcement “welcome news.” The advocacy group, she said, has asked the department to provide schools with information on how to ensure students receive a free and appropriate education under the law even if a parent continues to opt for remote learning.

    Related

    Parents (and Lawyers) Say Distance Learning Failed Too Many Special Education Students. As Fall Approaches, Families Wonder If Their Children Will Lose Another School Year

    The two-hour event, expected to be one in a series focused on equity, comes as educators continue to confront the uneven impact of the pandemic and school closures on students. Recent test results in Houston, for example, show a sharp decline in Algebra I scores among on Black, Hispanic and low-income students, and hospitals have seen an increase in girls needing mental health services. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, however, said in recorded remarks that he wants equity to be more than a “passing buzzword.” He’s drawing attention to students that have long felt marginalized in public schools, and shared a video last week of a conversation with his transgender cousin.

    “A lot of times, school for these kids, it’s an escape for them,” said Alex Cardona. “And having to escape to somewhere that’s also unsupportive just doesn’t help anyone.”

    In the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, a district prominently featured during the event, counselors and other student service professionals are trained to understand the needs of LGBTQ students and know where they can refer students and their families for support, explained Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. The district has a central office specialist who leads that work.

    “It is 100 percent our responsibility to see our students, to recognize them, to value them,” added Olivia Carter, a counselor at Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and the 2021 School Counselor of the Year. “It’s our responsibility to humanize students.”

    That includes helping students come to school with clean clothes, said Alejandro Diasgranados, who teaches fourth and fifth grade at Alton Elementary in Washington, D.C. and led efforts to provide an on-site laundry facility for students to reduce absenteeism. He agreed with Marten that the condition of school facilities is an important equity issue.

    “My students have seen the differences between our school and more affluent schools across town — things like other schools have turf fields and schools without bars on windows,” said Diasgranados, one of four finalists for 2021 Teacher of the Year.

    President Joe Biden has proposed spending $100 million for K-12 school construction and upgrades as part of his infrastructure plan, but if the administration reaches a compromise deal with Republicans, that plan is unlikely to be included.

    Diasgranados said he is especially focused on recruiting more educators of color.

    “Teacher diversity is teacher quality,” he said, but added that in addition to providing mentorships, it’s important that black educators aren’t “forced into disciplinary roles,” which can contribute to high turnover.

    Related

    Four Finalists for Teacher of the Year Answer the Question: What’s it Like to Lead Classes During the ‘Worst Year Ever’?

    The event included student performances and one student panelist. Rina Stanghellini, part of the White Plains district, said it’s important for students to see reflections of their culture in the curriculum in the early grades.

    “I didn’t get to read books about Asian American characters in culture by Asian American authors until I got to high school,” she said.

    Shantel Meek, who leads the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University, said following the summit that the speakers could have given more attention to early-childhood education. While Miami-Dade officials talked about how the district uses Title I funds to expand the state’s half-day pre-K program to a full day, Meek said equity issues in K-12, such as facilities, mental health services and workforce diversity, apply to the early years as well.

    “Often early ed gets seen as an equity intervention in itself, when in reality it is a system of its own with many of the same challenges as K-12,” she said.

    Some parents noted that this was the second virtual summit the secretary has held without representation from parents. The reopening event the department held in March included student voices, but not those of parents.

    “All this discussion about reforming education needs to be meaningful and include parents in the consultation process,” said Eileen Chollet, a parent whose daughter attends Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

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  • Just In — Secretary Cardona’s Full Remarks For the Department of Education’s Equity Summit: ‘To Advance Equity, We Must Innovate’

    By The 74 | June 22, 2021

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    Below are the prepared remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, recorded in advance of Tuesday’s first installment of the Department of Education’s Educational Equity Summit Series. (We’ll be covering today’s event, sign up here to receive our coverage)

    Remarks as prepared: 

    Thank you, Melito, for the kind introduction, and more importantly, for all you do for the students we serve. You are a shining example of what it means to serve. Eres un orgullo Latino!

    And thank you, Dr. Biden, our First Lady, for your inspiring words – but more importantly, for walking the walk. Despite the pandemic and the transition to the role of First Lady of the United States, you continued to teach your students. Your passion for teaching and ensuring that your students have what they need exemplify what it means to be a great teacher. Thank you for your service to our country as a teacher and for lifting the profession and purpose we have as educators focused on equity.

    And to my Colleagues who’ve signed up for this important equity summit series, thank you for taking the time to join us. We hope that through your engagement, you will hear strategies that match our collective passion to make sure that we look at this reopening through a lens of equity. I don’t have to tell you that the inequities in education have been a constant since we have been collecting data. I don’t have to tell you that the pandemic exacerbated inequities, not only in education, but in other critical areas such as health and economic stability.

    Well, we are here today because we plan to do something about it. This is a moment in education to boldly address the patterns of inequity that have been pervasive in our schools. This is our moment to ensure that we reopen, reinvest, and reimagine our schools differently and better than ever before. If we go back to how it was, we would be returning to a system where you can predict outcomes based on race and place, where the color of your skin and zip codes are better determinants of outcomes than the actual aptitude of our learners.

    This is our moment to have the difficult conversations about how to build back better, how to lead transformatively, and how to use every penny provided by the President and Congress to ensure that those most impacted by the pandemic receive the most support. We have often heard, and maybe even exclaimed ourselves, that education is the great equalizer. Well, now is our chance to prove it. The funding is there, the urgency from the President is there. Are we going to lead through this and come out stronger? Or is the temptation of complacency going to dissipate our call to action?

    I remember growing up listening to hip hop icons Public Enemy and they encouraged challenging the system and “Fighting the Power”. Well, now, we are the system. It’s on us to make the change we need in our country. In many places, small incremental change is not enough. We will need innovative and creative leadership fueled by urgency. The resources are there. At the federal, state, and local level — we must act.

    Related

    Biden’s $20 Billion Education Equity Proposal Would Create ‘Powerful Incentive’ for States to Close Funding Gaps Between Districts

    These next months and years will determine the trajectory of success for millions of students in our care. This is our moment.

    President Biden and Vice President Harris have made equity a core priority. It’s why the American Rescue Plan is ensuring that schools not only have the resources to re-open for in-person instruction quickly, but that they are also focused on investing in meeting the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of the students most impacted by COVID-19—who are often the same students who were furthest from opportunity before the pandemic.

    It’s why the President’s American Jobs Plan, American Families Plan, and the rest of the fiscal year 2022 budget provide unprecedented investments in educational equity: Universal pre-K and free community college. Supporting $100 billion in investments in school infrastructure. More than doubling funding for Title I schools through new equity grants that will incentivize states to address inequitable school funding systems. Investing in our educators and building a diverse pipeline so every student from every background can be supported by teachers, mentors, and staff who share and understand their experiences. Doubling the number of school counselors, social workers, and school psychologists. Taking a huge step towards fulling funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And just last week, we affirmed that Title IX protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, making clear that every student, no matter who they are or whom they love, have equal access to educational opportunities in our schools.

    Last week I visited Harvey Milk High School in New York City. There I heard from students about what they want to see in our education system. They spoke of wanting a system that is free from discrimination for students who are LGBTQ, students who have disabilities, or students from different racial backgrounds. They spoke about a system where all students had access to tools needed for learning, like broadband and technological devices. We know that many rural communities and poorer communities still do not have that. Collectively, we own the students at Harvey Milk High, and every student across the country, exactly that – a school that promotes equity and access in its DNA.

    Related

    Ed Department Spotlights ‘Deep Cracks’ in the Nation’s Schools with New Report, Upcoming Equity Summit

    Equity in education is about providing all students, from all backgrounds and all parts of the country, with the resources and supports that they need to succeed and thrive in our society. It’s about providing them pathways to contribute to their communities, and to make the world a better place. Equity is not a passing buzzword, but an ongoing, continuous effort to make sure that every student feels supported in their classrooms and in every educational environment. That’s why this summit isn’t a one-time event for us – but something that will be infused in all of our work at the Department and across the Administration for the next four years.

    To advance equity, we must innovate, share promising practices, and work together to create the education system that all of our students deserve, a system where students are at the center – while recognizing that for far too long, we haven’t lived up to that promise.

    I hope you find that spirit and unwavering support in the Department of Education’s Equity Summit series.

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  • A Year After Espinoza, Supreme Court Accepts New Case That Tests Limits of Religious Freedom in School

    By Linda Jacobson | June 21, 2021

    Updated July 6

    The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday announced that it will hear Carson v. Makin, a case involving Maine’s tuition assistance program. Following the court’s decision last year in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, plaintiffs in the case argue that excluding religious schools from the program is a violation of their constitutional rights, while the state has said the program is only meant to provide students a public education they can’t access in their own community. 

    School choice advocates celebrated the court’s decision. In a statement, Leslie Hiner, who leads EdChoice’s legal efforts, said, “We applaud the action of the Court in agreeing to hear a case brought by parents in Maine who have been denied the opportunity to send their children to a school of faith using the state’s town tuitioning vouchers.”

    The U.S. Supreme Court will discuss Thursday whether to hear a case that could settle for good whether states can exclude religious schools from publicly funded voucher programs.

    The argument in Carson v. Makin is over Maine’s tuition assistance program, which pays for students in towns without a public school to attend another one of their choice — public or private — as long as it’s not religious.

    In October last year, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the religious exclusion, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court. But earlier this month the 2nd Circuit reached the opposite conclusion, ruling that students in a similar program in Vermont can use public funds at religious schools.

    “It is a mess, to put it mildly,” said Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice, which is representing the two families in Maine who sued over the state’s policy. The contradiction “cries out for Supreme Court review, and only the Supreme Court can resolve it,” he said.

    This time last year, school choice advocates won a major victory in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, when the court ruled 5-4 that officials could not exclude religious schools from a state tax credit scholarship program simply because they are religious. It was a major setback for states with so-called Blaine amendments, 19th century laws that prevent public funds from supporting religious schools. The Espinoza ruling sparked a renewed push at the state level to expand such scholarship programs, and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suggested the decision opened the door for religious-oriented charter schools.

    The justices, however, left one issue unsettled. The Espinoza ruling means states can’t prohibit religious schools from participating in a school choice program because of their religious status, but the justices didn’t resolve whether states could exclude schools because they teach students about religion.

    The Institute for Justice addressed this in a brief to the court following the 2nd Circuit’s decision in the Vermont case, referring to “the utter disarray of the law in this area.”

    The court typically schedules conference days when the justices discuss current cases as well as whether to hear or reject appeals. The “order list” is usually released a day or so after justices hold a conference, Bindas explained. That means the court could announce as soon as Monday whether they’ll hear the Carson case, but a quick decision could mean they’re going to pass, he added. If the justices decide to hold it over for a “cleanup conference” next week, that could signal their intention to hear the case.

    Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey has said that the state’s law doesn’t discriminate against religious schools because it is “simply declining to pay for religious instruction that would be unavailable in a public school.” Ted Fisher, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Education, said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

    Related

    Court Scraps Vermont Ban on Sending Tax Dollars to Religious Schools

    Anti-discrimination policies

    If the justices agree to hear it, Carson could be the first school choice case before the court since the confirmation of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic who served as a trustee for a religious school that participates in Indiana’s school choice program and doesn’t welcome children with same-sex parents.

    The Espinoza ruling was a 5-4 decision, and conservatives now hold a 6-3 supermajority on the court.

    Some legal experts have suggested the court’s decision last week in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia — a case involving a Catholic social services agency that opposes certifying same-sex couples as foster parents — would have an impact on school voucher programs.

    In Fulton, the court ruled unanimously that the city violated the agency’s First Amendment’s religious freedom protections by requiring it to give up its opposition to same-sex relationships in order to receive a government contract. The connection to school choice is that religious schools, such as the one where Barrett served as a trustee, are often opposed to hiring LGBTQ staff or admitting gay students or those with gay parents.

    But the impact of the decision on school choice programs is limited. While the opinion was unanimous, the court focused on a narrow exemption in the city’s contract with the agency.

    “Fulton does not create a right to religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws that apply equally to everyone,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “State constitutional prohibitions and laws that prohibit use of public funds to support religious instruction generally do not have any exemptions and so should not be affected by Fulton.”

    The issue is relevant in Bethel Ministries, Inc. v. Salmon, a case before a Maryland district court. The state excluded the religious school from a voucher program because the school’s handbook says it “supports a biblical view of marriage” and that “God immutably bestows gender upon each person at birth as male or female.” The school, which serves low-income students, said these statements don’t impact its admissions process, but the state still declined to admit it to the program.

    The state is expected to submit a brief Friday requesting a decision in the case, with the plaintiff’s request expected in July.

    Related

    Barrett’s SCOTUS Confirmation Would Give Conservatives a Supermajority on Education Issues From Race-Based Admissions to School Choice but Could Create a ‘Desert for Equity,’ Experts Say

    Bindas, with the Institute for Justice, noted that the plaintiffs in the Maine case are arguing that families attending any religious school should be able to participate in a state’s school choice program. As it stands, Vermont could try to get around the appeals court’s decision by passing new legislation excluding religious schools because they teach students about doctrine or have a time for worship.

    “Using public funds for religious instruction violates the religious freedom of taxpayers who are forced to subsidize faiths to which they do not subscribe,” said Luchenitser, who has argued that the court should decline to hear the appeal in the Carson case.

    Dave and Amy Carson kept their daughter Olivia at the Christian school she attends but that doesn’t participate in the tuition assistance program. The other plaintiffs in the case, Angela and Troy Nelson, wanted to send their children to a religious school, but instead sent their two children to a secular private school that accepts vouchers.

    “You either forgo the benefit,” Bindas said, “or you forgo the school that you think is best for your child.”

    In a broader sense, the Fulton decision shows the court continues to move toward a “more aggressive” position in favor of religious rights, said Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

    “The reasoning of Espinoza … is hard to square with the 1st Circuit’s opinion,” Dunn said, adding that if the court decides to hear the case, “Maine should be very worried.”

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  • As Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Catholic Adoption Agency and Moves Further to Protect Freedom of Religion, Possible Implications for Vouchers and Religious Schools

    By Linda Jacobson | June 18, 2021

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    The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia Thursday, ruling 9-0 that a Catholic social services agency, which believes marriage is between a man and a woman, has a right to exclude same-sex couples from becoming foster parents and that the city violated the organization’s First Amendment rights when it froze an existing contract due to the policy.

    The unanimous decision, coming one year after a split ruling in the Espinoza case involving religious schools and scholarship programs, reinforced the court’s continued trajectory towards supporting the protection of religious freedoms. The Fulton decision could also have possible implications for the participation of religious schools in voucher programs “because religious schools often discriminate based on sexual orientation or other protected characteristics,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

    The Fulton case — and its implications for similar lawsuits now working their way through the courts — became a key talking point surrounding President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. As we reported back in September:

    John Bursch, senior counsel at the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom — which has paid Barrett to deliver a lecture — said that the outcome of Fulton could affect an education case in Maryland. A Baltimore-area Christian school is suing Maryland state Superintendent Karen Salmon, arguing that the state revoked its eligibility to participate in a voucher program because the school lacks a nondiscrimination policy that protects LGBTQ students. “Both cases involve a government entity making false accusations of bigotry against a religious organization because of its beliefs about marriage,” Bursch said. “No religious school should be forced to give up its Biblical beliefs to participate in a government program that provides educational assistance to low-income students.”

    By a decisive 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court this year also upheld the “ministerial exception” that allows religious institutions to disregard the antidiscrimination policies that apply to secular organizations. The decision would be relevant in any future cases involving religious schools with anti-LGBTQ workplace policies that participate in school choice programs. The Fulton ruling could also influence the outcome of cases involving LGBTQ students, such as those in which teachers cite religious objections when not referring to transgender students by their preferred names or pronouns, said Sharon McGowan, chief strategy officer and legal director for Lambda Legal.

    See Thursday’s full Fulton ruling:

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  • Ed Department: Title IX Protects Gay and Transgender Students

    By Linda Jacobson | June 16, 2021

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    Title IX’s protections against sexual discrimination and violence extend to gay and transgender students, the U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday in an interpretation of the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County. (The full notice is embedded below)

    Acting on statements Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has made since he was nominated, the department’s notice reinforces that “on the basis of sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity. The few tense moments Cardona has had in hearings before Congress so far have involved questions from Republicans over whether transgender girls should be allowed to compete against biological girls in high school and college sports.

    Related

    ‘It’s So Hard’: As Trans Bans Spread, Experts Weigh How to Balance Fairness and Inclusion in High School Sports

    “Today is an important milestone in the struggle to recognize the rights of LGBTQ+ students, one that we mark with pride,” Suzanne Goldberg, acting assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in a blog post.

    Last week, the department’s Office for Civil Rights held a five-day public comment period on a revamped Title IX rule, and stressed that officials were especially interested in hearing from those who have experienced harassment because of sexual orientation and gender identity.

    Related

    Deja Vu as Ed Department Once Again Revisits the Contentious Landscape of Title IX

    In a statement, Congressman Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia and chair of the House education committee, said “LGBTQ students will have strong and clear legal protections from discrimination in schools, and a safe learning environment.”

    According to The New York Times, it’s unclear how the notice will impact states that have passed legislation banning trans students from competing against girls.

    Today’s full release:

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  • Watch Now: As America’s Charter Schools Turn 30, Bill Clinton and an Expert Panel Reflect on the History (and Future) of Education Reform

    By The 74 | June 16, 2021

    It’s been three decades since Minnesota created the nation’s first charter school law, and since then, tens of thousands of families have taken advantage of the choice opportunities that charter schools have offered. To mark the anniversary, The 74 is partnering with the Progressive Policy Institute for a special Wednesday panel discussion, “Charter Schools at 30,” assessing the movement, and the moment. It’s streaming live now — watch here: 

    The session features Myrna Castrejón, president of the California Charter Schools Association; Karega Rausch, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers; Ember Reichgott Junge, the former Minnesota state senator who introduced that first charter bill; and Paul G. Vallas, founder of the Vallas Group. 

    Tressa Pankovits, co-director of Reinventing America’s Schools at PPI, is moderating, following an introductory message from former President Bill Clinton, who authorized the federal Charter Schools Program three years after the Minnesota bill became law. 

    Some recent charter school coverage from The 74’s archive: 

    — 30 Years Later: Chester Finn & Bruno Manno on looking back — and ahead — at the charter school movement (Read more

    — College Success: Data show charter students graduating from college at three to five times national average (Read more

    — ROI: Analysis shows charters yield 53% greater return on investment (Read more

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  • States Submit Plans for Using Relief Funds for Recovery, But 23 States Still Working on Drafts

    By Linda Jacobson | June 14, 2021

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    Arkansas is creating a tutoring corps. Montana will provide more training for teachers working with American Indian students. And Wyoming wants to focus on supporting teachers who serve English learners.

    Those are among the ways states are spending their portion of $122 billion in aid from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, according to drafts the U.S. Department of Education posted on Monday. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia met the June 7 deadline, but 23 states are still finalizing theirs, giving parents and advocates more time to weigh in on how they want states to direct the funds.

    In April, states received $81 billion of the K-12 funds. States won’t receive their slice of the remaining $41 billion until their plans are approved, but the hold up shouldn’t affect districts’ initiatives to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss, experts said.

    “Because states already have the lion’s share — two-thirds — of the … funds and are allocating them to districts this summer, states and districts should be able to implement activities in the fall, whether they formally submit their plan now or later,” said Anne Hyslop, the director of policy development at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

    In a statement, the department said it is posting the documents online now so families, educators and community organizations can follow how officials plan to spend this once-in-a-generation influx of federal funds for education. While 90 percent of the funds are being distributed to districts, states still have a combined $12 billion to address learning loss and continue preparing schools for fully reopening in the fall. With several plans still outstanding, some experts say the extra time means states can gather more input from the community on how to best respond to students’ needs.

    The extra time “could ultimately improve the quality and sustainability of the plans,” Hyslop said.

    She said she’ll be interested to see whether states decide to create competitive grant programs, which, she said, could be an effective way to distribute the funds and focus on the needs of “students who’ve been most affected by the pandemic’s disruptions.”

    But some will have a better grasp on whether or not students are off track. States that were able to test more students in-person this spring will have more reliable data.

    “Because school doors were open for in-person instruction, we had a high participation rate for our statewide assessment. I’m anxious to dig into the data to learn more,” said Wyoming Superintendent Jillian Balow. “Rather than focusing on why students are behind, we have a rare opportunity to address it with federal funds and a keen focus on closing gaps, especially in literacy.”

    Wyoming Superintendent Jillian Balow recently visited Little Snake River Valley School. (Wyoming Department of Education)

    States had to set aside 5 percent of their allotment to help students catch up, 1 percent for afterschool programs and 1 percent for summer learning and enrichment programs. New Mexico will join with local municipalities to offer summer internships for middle and high school students, and New Jersey is issuing grants for summer learning academies to focus on subject areas affected by school closures, such as the arts and STEM.

    Most states, according to the department, are using a portion of the funds to address students’ social and emotional health. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms teens, especially girls, have struggled with mental health issues since the beginning of the pandemic. Among adolescents, the proportion of emergency room visits related to mental health issues increased 31 percent between 2019 and 2020. And between February and March this year, suspected suicide attempts among girls had increased by half, compared to the same time period in 2019.

    Oklahoma plans to spend $35 million to hire more counselors and other mental health professionals, and the District of Columbia plans to expand its on-site behavioral health system to increase students’ access to clinical services.

    That was one of several requests the D.C. Charter Alliance made in a list of budget recommendations in February. The pandemic has created instability in finances, employment, housing and food, said Shannon Hodge, executive director of the Alliance. “And we know that those instabilities will affect students’ mental health and their readiness to learn. One of the easiest ways to improve access to mental health care for students is to make services available at school.”

    ‘Turning up the volume’

    Six states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Mississippi, Nevada and Wisconsin — don’t expect to submit plans until August or September. Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said while the wait doesn’t stop district’s efforts, it “does make it trickier.”

    “Being in a state that submitted their plans will make it easier for [districts] to move forward in a timely manner while knowing the state expectations [and] commitments,” she said.

    Dan Gordon, senior legal and policy advisor with EducationCounsel, added the delay could complicate matters if states communicate “a key policy priority” once school starts.

    “Some of those might be great ideas, but waiting too long to share them could make it hard for districts to thoughtfully incorporate them into their own plans,” he said.

    The delay, however, also gives parents and education advocates more time to influence officials’ decisions on where to direct the funds.

    “Students will likely return to our school system in the fall with a host of needs that require additional training and supports for educators,” said Feliza Ortiz-Licon, chief policy and advocacy officer at Latinos for Education, a national advocacy organization.

    California, where she used to be a state board member, is among those not submitting a draft until August. She said she hopes the state uses the extra time to get more input from the community and focus on increasing educator diversity. “The teacher shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic and California needs to consider new and innovative ways to attract and retain talent,” she said.

    Minnesota is expected to turn in its plan by June 30th.

    Khulia Pringle, the coordinator of family engagement and advocacy for the Minnesota Parent Union is concerned that because Gov. Tim Walz announced his Due North Education Plan in January, long before the American Rescue Plan passed, he won’t incorporate parent feedback now.

    She’s organizing a virtual town hall for later this month, arguing that Black, Hispanic and other minority parents — especially those whose children have disabilities — have not been well represented on a committee that is advising the state.

    “We’re turning up the volume now,” she said. “We’re trying to engage them, but they’re not trying to engage us.”

    Ashleigh Norris, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Education, said officials are currently gathering public comments and are “committed to authentic engagement.”

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  • Senate Republican Leaders Seek Answers on Teachers Unions’ Influence Over CDC School Reopening Guidance

    By Linda Jacobson | June 10, 2021

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    Leading Republicans on the Senate education committee are calling on the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide details about how much the agency interacted with teachers unions and whether she has been completely forthcoming about their involvement in school reopening guidance.

    North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, ranking member of the committee, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, sent a letter to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky Thursday with a list of questions about why the guidance was delayed from late January to mid-February. The letter asks Walensky to identify all administration personnel, including political appointees who prepared and reviewed her April 22 letter to the committee, and requests a complete list of “stakeholders” the CDC contacted, including parents. The senators want to see all documents and communications between the CDC and union employees or members.

    “That your agency would give teachers’ unions privileged access to the agency’s internal decision-making process on an issue as critical as school re-openings is a betrayal of that trust,” they wrote. “That you then would appear to try to avoid Congressional scrutiny by providing incomplete testimony is deeply troubling.”

    The letter is the latest example of concerns about political influence over the agency in charge of the nation’s response to the pandemic. During the Trump administration, Democrats investigated whether senior officials were pressuring the CDC, then led by Dr. Robert Redfield, to downplay the threat of the virus. Now, Republicans are questioning whether President Joe Biden’s supporters have interfered with efforts to reopen schools.

    The CDC did not respond to requests for comment.

    On Feb. 27, The 74 filed a request with the CDC seeking information similar to what the senators want — all documents and communication, such as emails and transcripts of meetings, involving the CDC and any interest groups or individuals consulted in preparing the guidance. The CDC has so far provided internal CDC emails, but not the full list of groups and individuals.

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    Walensky testified before the committee May 11, saying that the agency sought input from over 50 “consumers.” During that hearing, she said the CDC’s communication with the unions focused on what schools should do if they have immunocompromised teachers.

    But emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Americans for Public Trust and Open Fairfax County Schools, a parents’ group in Virginia, show there was extensive email communication between CDC officials and the unions, especially the American Federation of Teachers.

    “Your testimony seems – at a minimum incomplete – if not inaccurate,” the letter said. “The email correspondence makes clear that the involvement of the teachers’ unions went well beyond accommodations for high-risk teachers.”

    AFT, for example, pushed for language saying the agency could change its guidance if a new variant of COVID-19 was detected.

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    In a Feb. 11 email to Walensky, as well as White House officials, Kelly Trautner, AFT’s senior director of health issues, suggested: “In the event high community transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a new update of these guidelines may be necessary.” She wrote that the union was concerned that even with safety protocols in place, some schools in “high-density, crumbling infrastructure areas” would not be able to safely reopen.

    The final guidance reads: “As more information becomes available, prevention strategies and school guidance may need to be adjusted to new evidence on risk of transmission and effectiveness of prevention in variants that are circulating in the community.”

    The Fairfax group said the senators raise important questions and that the public needs to understand why the guidance didn’t always coincide with the studies and recommendations it received from experts, such as the agency recommending 6 feet of social distancing even when research showed 3 feet was still effective in minimizing transmission. The CDC later reduced its recommendation 3 feet, which the AFT initially opposed.

    “The draconian guidelines, many of which the CDC has subsequently pulled back from, resulted in slower reopenings in parts of the country that treat such guidance as mandatory, a result that was in alignment with the positions being advanced by the AFT and NEA but which caused real harm to the nation’s school children,” the Fairfax group said.

    Following the initial release of the emails May 1, AFT spokesman Oriana Korin issued a statement saying the union was in touch with the CDC on behalf of its members, just as it was during the Trump administration.

    “And while we have at times been concerned about their conclusions — as we were initially with the change in classroom physical distancing rules — we respect deeply that the CDC career staff has always taken its responsibility seriously,” she said. “And we appreciate that under Dr. Walensky’s leadership, the CDC welcomes stakeholder feedback, as opposed to ignoring it.”

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  • Gender Gap in Vaccination Narrower Among Youth Than Adults, Early Numbers Show

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | June 10, 2021

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    As young people continue to line up for coronavirus shots, the gender breakdown appears, well, surprisingly even.

    Compared to a persistent gap between adult men and women in vaccination rates, with women rolling up their sleeves considerably more than men nationwide, early data indicate that the split has been far less pronounced among youth.

    In Rhode Island, as of early June, young people had seen only a 4 percentage point difference between males and females in COVID-19 immunization, according to numbers provided by the Rhode Island Department of Health, compared to a 7 percentage point gap among the state’s population at large. On the same timescale in Vermont, the gender split was even narrower, at 2 percentage points among vaccinated youth, according to Vermont Department of Health statistics, compared to 6 percentage points among all vaccinated individuals.

    Nicolette Carrion, a first-year at Georgetown University from Nassau County, New York, understands the numbers as being due to “generational difference.”

    Young people today are “brought up in a different society,” Carrion told The 74. Not only are kids eager to socialize and connect with peers, but living through a pandemic has helped raise their social consciousness from an early age.

    “From what I’ve seen, the care for other people, I think it’s a whole different level,” she said.

    Among youth, the gender gap in immunization appears to shrink further when students have increased access to vaccinations.

    In Carrion’s home county on Long Island, schools launched a youth vaccination campaign complete with student ambassadors to answer peers’ questions about the shots. Amid their immunization push, rates of inoculation stood virtually even, with 50.1 percent of shots going to young women and 49.9 percent going to young men, according to data provided by the county in late May. East Hartford, Connecticut, which hosted a senior “skip day” for vaccinations in late April, immunized 130 female students and 134 males, the district said.

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    Carrion, who worked as a vaccine ambassador, said that the even immunization rates across gender for students in Nassau County reflected the conversations she had with her peers.

    “I never really saw a difference with how my male peers and female peers spoke about the vaccines,” said Carrion. “They wanted to live out their lives as young people and that’s really what it was all about.”

    The Nassau County youth vaccine ambassadors, accompanied by, left to right, Dr. Daniel Fagan of Northwell Health, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, Nassau County Commissioner of Health Lawrence Eisenstein and Dr. Jermaine Williams, President of Nassau Community College. Nicolette Carrion stands center in grey hoodie. (Office of the Nassau County Executive)

    Among adults, on the other hand, longstanding gender gaps have persisted nationwide. In April, the gap measured about 10 percentage points, which some observers initially wrote off as the result of women holding occupations that received early vaccine priority at higher rates than men. But even as access to shots widened, the disparity has remained persistent, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting this week that 53 percent of all vaccine-eligible women have received at least one dose, while the same is true for only 47 percent of vaccine-eligible men.

    Reports from early in the pandemic found that men were less likely to wear masks and follow virus-related safety protocols, due to ideas that doing so would be a “sign of weakness.”

    For Rohith Raman, however, a graduating high school senior in Houston, Texas, the choice was simple. He lives with his grandmother, and his sister has severe asthma, so Raman got a shot as soon as he was eligible.

    “It was a pretty cut-and-dry decision,” the Houston senior told The 74. Now he can visit with friends without the risk of bringing the virus home. “A little bit of stress has been relieved.”

    Most of the young people in Raman’s social circle have also received their vaccinations. He credits social media with applying a positive peer effect on students, encouraging them to get immunized.

    “There is a huge ripple effect when you see your friends getting [the shot],” said Raman.

    In mid-May, the Food and Drug Administration authorized youth aged 12 to 15 for shots based on their existing emergency use approval. And though children are still considered much less likely to develop severe symptoms or die from COVID-19, a third of kids who were hospitalized for the disease in early 2021 were admitted to intensive care, and 5 percent required ventilators, according to a CDC study. Boys account for 56 percent of all COVID deaths among youth under 18 while girls make up 44 percent, CDC numbers show.

    With more adults now immunized than youth, and with kids under 12 likely not eligible for doses until the fall, young people represent an increasing share of total cases, and health experts are emphasizing the importance of immunizing youth.

    Carrion, who after a year of remote classes was able to step onto her college campus for the first time in early June thanks to her vaccination, also emphasized the social upside to immunization for people her age, in addition to the public health reasons. It was prom season in late May and now it’s graduation season, she points out, and students don’t want to be stuck on the sidelines.

    “We see the benefits in real time,” she said.

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  • College Enrollment Continues to Plunge, Marking the Worst Single-Year Decline Since 2011

    By Richard Whitmire | June 10, 2021

    Restaurants and airports may be filling up again as the pandemic eases, but not college campuses.

    The continued steep drops in college enrollment, especially at community colleges which attract disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority students, are both surprising and worrisome.

    This spring, overall college enrollment fell by 603,000 students, from 17.5 million to 16.9 million — a drop that is seven times worse than the year before when the pandemic first hit and marks the steepest year-over-year decline since 2011, the first year the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center began keeping track. The Research Center released the latest figures in a report Wednesday.

    Community colleges were hit hardest, declining 9.5 percent, or 476,000 fewer students. More than 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring occurred in the community college sector.

    “The final estimates for spring enrollment confirm the pandemic’s severe impact on students and colleges this year,” said Doug Shapiro, the Clearinghouse’s executive director.

    In May, the Clearinghouse released preliminary data on spring enrollments based on 76 of the country’s higher education institutions. This report includes 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments.

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    Spring Came, the Pandemic Improved, the Economy Got Stronger, But College Enrollment Numbers Actually Got Worse

    In this most recent report, California led the nation in enrollment loss by headcount with a decrease of nearly 123,000 students. New Mexico declined the most by percentage, dropping 11.4 percent. Michigan placed in the top five states for both declining enrollment and percentage drop. Only seven states showed enrollment increases from last spring, many of them modest, although New Hampshire added 18,152 students, for a 10.8 percent bump.

    This report also confirmed a trend from earlier analyses: Enrollment among male students continued to fall at greater rates than female students. Men declined by 5.5 percent, or 400,000 students, while women dropped 2 percent, or 203,000 students compared with last spring.

    Related

    New Data: Sharp Declines in Community College Enrollment Are Being Driven By Disappearing Male Students

    The continued enrollment questions are troubling mostly because the declines have persisted longer than expected. Will enrollments ever recover, or have thousands of men and minorities abandoned their college dreams?

    “How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall,” said Shapiro.

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  • Ed Department Spotlights ‘Deep Cracks’ in the Nation’s Schools with New Report, Upcoming Equity Summit

    By Linda Jacobson | June 9, 2021

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    The U.S. Department of Education will hold a virtual summit on June 22 — the first in a series of events focused on addressing the inequitable impact of the pandemic on students of color and other high-need groups.

    Setting the stage for the conversation, the department’s Office for Civil Rights released a report Wednesday, summarizing what it calls a “developing story” of how the shift to remote learning and the public health crisis widened disparities in students’ access to a quality education.

    Drawing on existing surveys, research and assessment data, the report recapped how vulnerable groups, including English learners, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students, faced significant barriers to learning before the pandemic, only to be further cut off from the support they needed during school closures. The report comes the same week as a public hearing on Title IX and follows last week’s announcement that the Office for Civil Rights will accept public comments on discrimination in school discipline, offering further evidence that an arm of the department that was downsized during the previous administration is leading much of the agenda so far under Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

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    The department also released guidance for how states and districts can implement the “maintenance of equity” provision of the American Rescue Plan, which is intended to prevent budget and staffing cuts at high-poverty schools.

    The upcoming summit, guidance and report comply with an executive order President Joe Biden issued when he took office, directing federal agencies to examine the challenges facing underserved communities.

    Offering 11 observations of the pandemic’s impact on students, the report noted “worrisome signs” that academic performance has fallen below per-pandemic levels, that nearly all students have experienced mental health challenges and that gay, lesbian and transgender students have been at increased risk of isolation, harassment or abuse.

    “Those who went into the pandemic with the fewest opportunities are at risk of leaving with even less,” the report said.

    The event later this month will focus on how students can influence the schools they attend, continuing Cardona’s emphasis on student voice. He’s met with students during school visits, featured students during his school reopening summit in March and held a roundtable discussion with homeless youth in April.

    Other speakers at the summit will include Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten, Pedro Noguera, dean of education at the University of Southern California, and Olivia Carter, the 2021 School Counselor of the Year.

    The report out Wednesday stressed the role of civil rights protections for students as they recover from the pandemic. Schools, for example, must enroll homeless students without requiring proof of residency documents and ensure English learners receive language instruction and support.

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    The report noted that prior to the pandemic, students of color and students with disabilities were more likely to face suspension, expulsion and other harsh discipline practices. Now, the hardship, grief and loss some students have experienced may contribute to behavior challenges once they return to school full time. Schools, as a result, will have a greater need for educators and other specialists who understand how to work with students who have experienced trauma, according to the report.

    The pandemic revealed “deep cracks in the foundation” of the nation’s schools, the report said. “We have an extraordinary opportunity to move forward with full awareness of these cracks and recognition of the essential need to address and repair them.”

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  • Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary Keleher Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy Charges in Federal Corruption Probe

    By Mark Keierleber | June 8, 2021

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    Julia Keleher, the embattled former education secretary of Puerto Rico who oversaw the island’s response to Hurricane Maria, has pleaded guilty to two federal conspiracy charges in a wide-ranging corruption probe that scrutinized her business dealings while leading the U.S. territory’s school system.

    As part of a deal with federal prosecutors, Keleher pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud. The agreement recommends a sentence of six months in jail, 12 months of home confinement and a $21,000 fine. The agreement, which a federal judge will weigh at her Sept. 7 sentencing, would settle a yearslong and high-profile government corruption probe. The agreement would absolve Keleher of several other charges including wire fraud, identity theft and bribery.

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    Though the case has taken several twists and turns in the last few years, Keleher and five others were first indicted in 2019 and accused of conspiring to illegally direct millions of dollars in federal funds to contractors who had personal ties to the defendants. About six months later, in January 2020, she faced a second indictment accusing her of offering up a plot of public school land in exchange for help buying a luxury apartment. In a superseding indictment in August 2020, prosecutors accused Keleher of helping a firm led by a “close friend” secure an education department contract by disclosing confidential government documents, including the names and other personnel information of more than 6,000 Puerto Rico school employees. Keleher had previously pleaded not guilty.

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    The first charge, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, stems from an allegation that she participated in a bidding process in which she did “solicit and demand” that the company Colón & Ponce subcontract education department work to the campaign manager of a 2016 gubernatorial candidate. The action violated a contract which said the work couldn’t be subcontracted. The second charge, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, centers on Keleher offering up 1,034 square feet of public school land to a real estate company in San Juan. In return, Keleher was allowed to rent an apartment from June to December 2018 for just $1. When Keleher ultimately bought the two-bedroom apartment for $295,000, she was given a $12,000 incentive bonus, according to the indictment.

    Keleher, once a rising star in education reform circles, entered her plea during a virtual hearing Tuesday morning from her parents home outside Philadelphia. Her spokesman declined to comment later that day, citing a gag order that forbids the former education secretary from speaking to the press. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico didn’t respond to a request for comment.

    The white-collar criminal case has received significant public attention, especially in Puerto Rico where her tenure as education secretary was highly controversial. Keleher became Puerto Rico’s schools chief in January 2017 with big goals of reforming the island’s lackluster education system. Less than a year later, Hurricane Maria devastated the island and shuttered its public education system. In response, she seized upon the tragedy to close hundreds of campuses and usher in new education reforms, including charter schools and private school vouchers.

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    Before her indictment in 2019, she resigned from her post as the island’s top education official, a position that netted her the unusually high salary of more than $200,000. Prior to her arrest, Keleher consistently portrayed herself as a maligned crusader against widespread corruption within Puerto Rico’s education department.

    “Who you knew determined what job you had, irrespective of your experience or your capacity to perform,” she told several hundred audience members during a forceful speech at a Yale education conference in April 2019. Ending that practice “won me armies of people that literally would have been happy to take my head off.”

    Before her indictment, former Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló praised Keleher’s status as a political outsider from the mainland U.S. Keleher’s indictment was announced shortly before Rosselló resigned amid his own public scandal that led to widespread protests.

    “If you take somebody inside of the system, it’s kind of like The Matrix,” Rosselló told the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine in 2018. “It already owns you.”

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  • Court Scraps Vermont Ban on Sending Tax Dollars to Religious Schools

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | June 8, 2021

    Updated, June 9

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    In Vermont, where the state constitution enshrines a centuries-old prohibition against using tax dollars for religious purposes, a federal appeals court ruled last week that students in school choice districts may use their town’s tuition assistance at a local Catholic school.

    The ruling comes on the heels of a pivotal Supreme Court decision last summer, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which stipulated in a 5-4 vote that public funding for school choice programs cannot exclude religious educational facilities simply on grounds that they are non-secular.

    The Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal group that argued the case on behalf of four Vermont high schoolers and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, is celebrating the ruling as a clear-cut victory.

    “Vermont’s program provides a public benefit to families to use at a school of their choice. The government cannot take a family’s benefit away from them just because it doesn’t like that the family chose to send their child to a religious school — that’s unconstitutional and discriminatory,” Paul Schmitt, legal counsel for the Alliance, wrote in an email to The 74.

    “This decision makes clear that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects families in Vermont from religious discrimination the same as it does those in Montana.”

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    But legal scholars and education experts say that the case is not so simple — and is probably not over.

    They draw a key distinction between a ban on public dollars going to religious schools simply because they are non-secular, which Espinoza clearly outlaws, versus enacting safeguards to ensure, “if you receive this money, you can’t use it to teach religion,” Derek Black, constitutional law professor at University of South Carolina, told The 74.

    Vermont’s town tuitioning program dates back to 1869, making it the oldest school choice program in the country. However, up until 1991, participating private schools were considered by the state to be public schools with private boards, according to a 1989 Vermont Department of Education memo, subject to the same regulatory provisions as other town schools. Vermont’s program also differs from the funding mechanism in Montana, where private school tuition is subsidized through a tax credit scholarship, with donors receiving a tax break in exchange for their contribution versus public money flowing directly to private schools from the government.

    Because Vermont has never had a rule to specify how taxpayer funds could be spent at private schools, Black says the court’s recent decision is unsurprising and likely to prompt further legislation.

    “I don’t see why this decision suggests that Vermont needs to just wave a white flag and say, ‘OK, the coffers are open to the churches to come get what you want,’” he said. Instead, the state needs to “be nuanced and say, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to restrict this use.’”

    Peter Teachout, who works as a professor of constitutional law at Vermont Law School, agrees, arguing that there should be a process to certify that tax dollars are going to sectarian functions. “Private religious schools have lots of expenses that are unrelated to the propagation of religious feelings,” he pointed out in an interview.

    The issue stems from voucher programs run by certain districts. Many school systems in the Green Mountain State are so small, former Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe told The 74, that “it doesn’t make sense for … every single district in Vermont to have its own high school.” Instead, some districts allow funds to follow students to nearby public high schools of their choice, or to private schools as tuition subsidies.

    Eli Hulse, who grew up in South Hero, Vermont and graduated from high school in 2015, attended one such district. His family homeschooled him up until the end of middle school. To ease the transition into high school, they selected a small private school and received tuition assistance from their town. It was an adjustment, Hulse said, to learn the formulaic writing expected in essays, pick up on the structure of classes and get used to taking exams, so the reduced class size helped.

    “Teachers are able to give more dedicated attention to [a class] of 12 than one of a couple hundred,” he told The 74.

    But though his family did not choose a religious school, others in districts like South Hero do.

    At Rice Memorial High School, the Burlington Catholic school attended by the students involved in the lawsuit, 17 families from “tuitioning” towns like Hulse’s already are enrolled, Principal Lisa Lorenz told local station WCAX. They will now be eligible for funds from their towns as per the recent ruling. Tuition and fees for the 2021-22 school year are $12,425 and subsidies may attract new families to the school who previously had been unable to afford it, Lorenz hopes.

    Rice Memorial High School (Facebook)

    But Holcombe remains cautious. With the change comes new questions to be answered, she says. At Rice, for example, the task to “love learning, seek God and serve others” is “weaved into every aspect of life,” according to the school’s mission statement. How can tax money go toward the institution without supporting the teaching of religion, Holcombe wonders.

    Further, what happens when those views come in conflict with the expectations of public-serving institutions, she asks. “If Vermont is subsidizing religious schools, will religion be used to justify discrimination?” she asked.

    Holcombe points to Grace Christian School, a small, religious K-12 school in Bennington, Vermont, where the institution’s handbook states that “rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person,” also likening homosexuality to bestiality.

    In May, the school’s administrator told local news outlet VTDigger that Grace Christian “reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student if the atmosphere or conduct within the home or the activities of the student are counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle the school teaches.”

    For students from tuitioning districts, “the government needs to define what the public education is that they’re purchasing when they pay a voucher,” argues Holcombe.

    Related

    Battle Over Private School Choice Returns to States After Court Ruling, but Education Groups Pledge to ‘Protect’ Public Schools

    But regardless of any state-level changes that may arise in Vermont in response to the ruling, some observers predict that the case may ultimately land in the Supreme Court. Last October, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a Maine case fell in the opposite direction of Vermont’s, upholding a ban on tuition payments to religious schools.

    “One of the issues in the Supreme Court taking up a case is, ‘Is there a circuit split?’” said University of South Carolina’s Derek Black.

    If the Vermont case does reach the high court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, Holcombe thinks a larger strategy may be at work. She points to other cases litigated by the Alliance Defending Freedom, such as representing a Virginia teacher who refused to use the pronouns that match the gender identity of trans students, to argue that the Green Mountain State case may be part of a campaign to promote religious freedom at the expense of LGBTQ rights.

    “Vermont is just one Lego piece in a larger building,” said Holcombe. “We were picked precisely because we have a weak statutory and regulatory set of constructs around the use of public dollars in private settings. We’re just a very convenient case test.”

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  • Strong Gains, Quick Losses: New Research on Students with Disabilities Finds Conventional Data Hides Both Opportunity and Risk

    By Beth Hawkins | June 7, 2021

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    A new report from the assessment group NWEA underscores two findings that could inform how schools support children with disabilities going forward. Students receiving special education services often make more academic growth during a single school year than their typically abled peers, but are at substantially higher risk of losing ground during summer break.

    If students with disabilities fell behind during the pandemic the same way they do between school years, they are particularly vulnerable to what researchers call COVID Slide. To help address this, the report’s authors, together with the National Center for Learning Disabilities, have a number of recommendations.

    For the long term, they say, more research is needed to better understand the value of increased specialized summer programming — something many families must now fight to get. In the immediate future, however, they emphasize tutoring, high-quality curriculum and use of data to personalized instruction as schools welcome back children who may have received few specialized supports during the pandemic.

    While a trove of evidence shows that students in special education overall score much lower than their peers on standardized tests, NWEA says the report is the first to examine growth during the school year and summer learning loss specifically among children with disabilities.

    NWEA’s MAP test, formerly known as the Measures of Academic Progress, is typically given in the fall and spring, and sometimes more often. Administered online, it measures how far ahead or behind their grade level a student is, revealing which specific skills they have not mastered, as well as academic growth made in a single year.

    In contrast, state exams given in the spring provide a snapshot showing where students score in relation to what is expected for their grade. Because these yearly tests capture neither the strong academic growth among children with disabilities nor its rapid loss, they may obscure an important element to making special education more effective.

    The MAP scores student progress according to units NWEA calls RITs — the rough equivalent of inches or feet on a yardstick. During the summer, students with disabilities lose 1.2 to 2.1 RITs per month, compared with -0.4 to -0.8 for non-disabled students.

    Researchers Elizabeth Barker and Angela Johnson drew their conclusions from data gathered between 2014 and 2019 from 4,228 students in kindergarten through fourth grade in 109 schools. They divided students into two groups — ever-SPED and never-SPED — based on whether each child had received any special education services at any point. The sample, they note, is not representative because the information came from schools that were willing to share their data.

    In addition to finding that students with disabilities may both gain and lose academic skills more quickly than their classmates, the researchers found that children in special education start kindergarten at roughly the national mean but fall behind over the course of the year. The gap that opens between them and typically developing children widens between kindergarten and fourth grade.

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    In its accompanying set of recommendations, the National Center for Learning Disabilities notes that $3 billion of the $125 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief pandemic recovery funds is earmarked specifically for bolstering services for children with disabilities. Many of the strategies outlined are also being advanced by education advocacy groups as steps that will help all students catch up in the wake of COVID-19.

    Among them: States, districts and schools should invest in high-quality curriculum backed by evidence of effectiveness — particularly for students with disabilities. They should consider offering more learning time and research-backed tutoring. Using good data to personalize instruction is key to serving children with disabilities, as is embracing universal design, a strategy of modifying lessons to make them accessible to any student.

    Because of the trauma and mental health challenges families have experienced during the pandemic, it’s likely to be difficult for educators to discern the difference between an educational disability and an emotional or behavioral challenge, the center warns. Schools should strengthen both their capacity to perform good special ed evaluations and social-emotional supports for all children — especially those from systemically marginalized communities.

    Finally, schools should step up family engagement and solicit input from parents of children with disabilities, possibly by partnering with organizations that are already deeply involved in their communities.

    The report includes links to numerous resources to help with the implementation of each recommendation.

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  • Oklahoma Law Forbids K-12 Vaccine Requirements; Experts Call Move Political Symbolism, But Not Without Risk

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | June 2, 2021

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    Oklahoma on Friday became the first state to enact legislation banning K-12 vaccine requirements. Michigan and Pennsylvania lawmakers have advanced bills to do the same — marking the start of a trend vaccine policy experts say is largely symbolic, but could still hamper the campaign to conquer COVID-19.

    Oklahoma’s prohibition on vaccine mandates covers not just K-12 schools, but colleges, universities and career and technical centers. While more than 400 higher education institutions across the country have announced an immunization requirement for the fall, Oklahoma is one out of only 15 states without a college or university on that list.

    Unlike post-secondary institutions, K-12 school districts do not have the legal grounding to mandate vaccines. Even before Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the law, no public schools in his state — or any other, for that matter — were able to mandate COVID vaccines.

    “The list of vaccines required for school is already set in the law. So you’d have to change the law anyway [before adding COVID vaccines],” UC Hastings law professor Dorit Reiss told The 74.

    Top Oklahoma school districts confirmed that the recent bill will not change their plans.

    “[It] does not impact our ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of our students and team members,” Tulsa Public Schools spokesperson Lauren Partain wrote in an email to The 74. Though the district is providing opportunities for eligible students and staff to receive vaccinations, she said, “we are not requiring students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at this time.”

    In Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s largest school system, media relations manager Crystal Raymond told The 74 that “COVID vaccine requirements have never been on the table for students or staff.”

    “Taking the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice. I’ve signed SB 658, to ensure that students can go to school without that choice being made for them,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt tweeted on Friday. (Governor Kevin Stitt via Twitter)

    Nationwide, the power to add shots to schools’ lists of required vaccinations, experts say, rests with state officials who will be unlikely to make any changes until vaccines receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, a clearance for which both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have applied. The federal agency authorized youth aged 12 to 15 for shots based on their existing emergency use approval in mid-May.

    The value of the Oklahoma law, which goes into effect July 1, or similar bills pending in Michigan and Pennsylvania may be more symbolic than functional, Reiss says. Once vaccines gain full approval from the FDA, the legislature could theoretically add coronavirus shots to the list of vaccines required for school entry, such as those that protect against measles, mumps and rubella — if the political will exists.

    Dorit Reiss (Talks on Law)

    “[This bill] indicates that it’s unlikely that Oklahoma will pass a COVID-19 vaccine mandate anytime soon,” said Reiss.

    Also included in the bill is a provision against “vaccine passports” and a ban on any school policies that require only non-vaccinated populations to wear face coverings.

    The University of Oklahoma, which dropped its mandatory masking requirement for fully immunized students and staff in May, now asserts that face coverings for unvaccinated community members remain “strongly recommended,” but not required, spokesperson Kesha Keith told The 74.

    Oklahoma joins a range of states including Georgia, Alabama, Arizona and Florida, which have already banned the use of vaccine passports. Elsewhere, however, vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals increasingly have access to two separate worlds.

    New York City has rolled out its Excelsior Pass, the nation’s first government-issued vaccine passport, which allows residents to show proof of vaccination via an app and QR code — often as an entry requirement for bars, clubs and restaurants. Outside the U.S., a digital record of vaccination went live in seven European Union countries on Tuesday.

    New Yorkers display their phones to show proof of vaccination through the Excelsior Pass for entry into The Shed, a center for performing and visual arts. (Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

    Such efforts reflect policymakers’ confidence in coronavirus vaccines, which scientists agree are safe and effective in preventing COVID-19 infection and spread. In Ohio, schools have seen a dramatic drop in staff cases as inoculations have become more widespread. Even Republican Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy touted his state’s high vaccination rates as a selling point to entice tourists this summer.

    “Having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, our people are safe and you will be, too,” Dunleavy said in the ad. (Alaska has since fallen to the middle of the pack in COVID-19 immunization.)

    In Florida, the vaccine passport ban has put Gov. Ron DeSantis on a collision course with cruise lines, one of the state’s top industries. While cruise executives seek to comply with CDC guidelines by ensuring that nearly all staff and passengers are fully immunized, given the inherent vulnerability of packing thousands of individuals into tight quarters at sea, DeSantis has largely dismissed their concerns.

    “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected, and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision,” he said. In response, at least one major line has threatened to leave the state.

    For Oklahoma state Sen. Rob Standridge, one of the authors of the law prohibiting vaccine requirements in school, the logic behind the legislation follows a similar throughline.

    “To force kids … to be vaccinated against their parents’ wishes … I don’t think we should be doing that as a government,” he said in a press conference.

    On the Senate floor, however, before the bill was passed, Democratic state Sen. J.J. Dossett made the case that the ban represented a government overreach — an argument frequently voiced by Republicans.

    “Why in this body are we telling local entities what they should or shouldn’t be doing?” he asked fellow lawmakers.

    When The 74 posed that question to Standridge, he did not offer a response.

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    These debates, says Reiss, of UC Hastings College of the Law, represent divisions that have emerged time and again throughout the pandemic.

    “It shows us that the pandemic has been politicized,” she said, arguing that, ultimately, legislation discouraging vaccinations will extend the public health crisis.

    “The virus needs hosts to survive. Less vaccines, more hosts, more room for the virus to stay around and keep hurting us.”

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  • New Study: After School Shootings, Well-Off Families Flee and Enrollment Drops. Low-Income Kids are Left to Confront the Aftermath

    By Mark Keierleber | June 1, 2021

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    For more than a decade after the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, Frank DeAngelis held a simple promise: He’d stay on as principal until every student class enrolled in the district during the attack reached the graduation stage.

    Despite the community upheaval and media frenzy that followed the notorious massacre, DeAngelis kept his word, remaining as principal until his retirement in 2014. But new research suggests that many families take an opposite approach after a shooting tears apart a school community.

    Instead, they flee.

    After districts suffer school shootings, student enrollment plummets over the long term as wealthy families move away, according to the new report. The shift carries significant implications for schools and the communities they serve as districts become more socioeconomically segregated. The enrollment declines persisted even as districts shelled out millions of dollars on physical security and student supports like counselors and as educators assured families that the schools remained safe places to learn.

    School shootings have a profound impact on the national political discourse and on the hundreds of thousands of children who’ve been terrorized by gun violence at schools since Columbine. Previous studies have found that school shootings are detrimental to students’ mental health and academic performance. The negative effects of school shootings are particularly acute in less affluent schools that serve large numbers of students of color and those from low-income households, where such tragedies are also more prevalent.

    Gun violence at schools remains statistically rare and campuses have actually grown increasingly safe over the last several decades. Yet they drive policy debates around campus security, student mental health and gun control.

    Frank DeAngelis, the retired principal of Columbine High School in suburban Denver, speaks during a 2019 remembrance service, 20 years after the mass shooting at his school. (Ason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images)

    As better-off families flee, their departures could have a detrimental effect on the lower-income community members who are left behind, said report co-author Lang (Kate) Yang, assistant professor of public policy and public administration at The George Washington University. In the short term, students who experienced the tragedies are “going to lose some peer support,” as their classmates move away which could contribute to “the psychological stress the shootings have already caused,” she said. Since student test scores are strongly tied to family income, districts’ loss of well-off students could also hurt their performance on standardized tests, the report noted.

    Maithreyi Gopalan

    The enrollment dips could also be felt over time as the areas’ median household income declines and the communities’ socioeconomic profiles are altered. The findings highlight a need for policymakers and administrators to focus on improving the perceptions of campus safety and quality “to avoid the pitfalls of yet another round of middle-class flight away from these schools.”

    Lang (Kate) Yang

    “It’s a stigma that needs to be countered,” Yang told The 74. Even though districts increase spending on physical security and mental health care, she said those efforts aren’t enough to dispel the bad rap, “which suggests that either the resources are not enough or they’re not used correctly. Maybe there is not an effort, or a coordinated effort, to show people that the school is still safe,” despite the isolated shooting.

    To conduct the study, researchers analyzed a database of 210 school shootings between 1999 and 2018, and compared them against district enrollment and Census data. In total, campuses that experienced shootings saw a 5 percent enrollment drop compared to those that weren’t victimized. Enrollment at nearby private schools also dipped, suggesting that shootings “reduce the desirability of the community and carry negative implications beyond the public schools where shootings occur.”

    To understand the demographics of students moving elsewhere, researchers analyzed enrollment changes between students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and those who were not. The enrollment declines were driven “almost entirely” by students who did not qualify for subsidized school meals, a common proxy for student poverty.

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    Researchers also analyzed educational spending in the wake of school shootings, finding that spending on security and student supports doesn’t crowd out instructional resources primarily due to an influx of federal money. That could also suggest that taxpayers nationwide may have a vested interest in prevention efforts, the report says.

    On average, campus shootings are associated with a $129, or a 19 percent, increase in per-pupil federal funding. While per-pupil spending on student supports like counselors increased by $22 following shootings, such tragedies led to a $107 per-pupil spike in capital spending driven by construction costs to repair buildings and upgrade security. After shootings, districts increased spending by $248 per pupil, indicating that school systems took on debt to pay for the response measures.

    Anecdotal evidence previously suggested that families fled their communities after school shootings, including an enrollment decline in Santa Fe, Texas, where a 17-year-old is accused of killing 10 people at a high school there in 2018. Earlier that year, the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, led several victims’ families to make cross-country moves to new homes on the West Coast, away from the politics, trauma and fear that lingered after the attack that left 17 high school students and faculty members dead.

    After the 1999 Columbine shooting, DeAngelis said his school became “probably one of the safest high schools in the world,” as officials ramped up security. Yet, some students chose to enroll in other nearby schools or left the district entirely. Part of the problem, he said, is that the school was thrust under the media microscope, which likely contributed to some families leaving.

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    Yet for some families that departed after the shooting, he said the decision may have been a mistake.

    “All of a sudden, they return the following year because they didn’t have the support at the other schools that they went to,” including a network of peers who went through similar experiences, he said.

    But the researchers found the decline in students wasn’t immediate but developed over time and wasn’t limited to those who were enrolled at the time of the tragedy.

    For report co-author Maithreyi Gopalan, an assistant education professor at Pennsylvania State University, the results indicate that long-term efforts to combat the effects of campus shootings is paramount, especially as enrollment is depleted over several years.

    Such shootings require more response than addressing the immediate effects and providing “counselors for one or two years and then it’s gone because the funding dries up,” she said. “We want to think about having a sustained impact” through policy so mitigation efforts aren’t short lived.

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