18 Key Education Stories to Watch This Year (According to the Experts): Congress, Courts, Choice, Classroom Innovations & More

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We’ve spent the past two months canvassing a wide spectrum of policy experts, advocates, and observers about the year ahead and the key education issues, story lines, and showdowns they see dominating the 2019 conversation surrounding America’s schools. (Get all our 2019 coverage delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for The 74 Newsletter.)

Many of their answers are revealing and noteworthy; here are 18 of their most surprising responses:

New Coalition Eyes 2019 as the Year to Prioritize Civics Education

There was no shortage of student voice in politics during 2018, from nationwide student walkouts to a record number of young people showing up to the midterm elections. But civics education remains poor — only one-fourth of eighth-graders are proficient, and only one-third of adults can name all three branches of government.

That’s why, in 2019, a new coalition aims to change that. CivXNow consists of dozens of organizations — from the American Bar Association to Tufts University to the Annenberg Public Policy Center — that have pledged to make civics education a priority through messaging campaigns and outreach to policymakers. The effort was started by iCivics, a free online game and curriculum site that teaches students about government. It was created by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who stepped away from public life in October but not before throwing her support behind the work in a public statement. “One thing my mom is very excited about is what is happening with this new entity called CivXNow,” Jay O’Connor, the retired justice’s son and an iCivics board member, told The 74. “That’s an example of the kind of coalition that can really help build a national movement and a coordinated push to prioritize civics education in schools.”

The 116th Congress Means New Scrutiny for Trump’s Education Policies

With Democrats back in charge of the House, ed watchers expect renewed scrutiny of the U.S. Education Department on topics like ESSA implementation, Secretary Betsy DeVos’s newly proposed Title IX rules, discipline regulations, and higher ed.

Education Committee chairman Rep. Bobby Scott is likely to hold hearings to get DeVos and the administration on the record and to raise public awareness of issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, a long-standing focus for Scott, a longtime education lobbyist told The 74. Other issues can be handled staff-to-staff or through letters, the lobbyist said.

Though some have predicted a spate of fiery hearings, Scott told The Washington Post he expects DeVos to testify once or twice during the two-year congressional session. Most questions, he said, can be addressed by Education Department responses to lawmakers’ queries. “You don’t need somebody testifying if you have the answers you requested,” he said. “I would expect when we have questions, we’ll get answers.”

Expanding the Personalized Learning Conversation to Pair Platforms With Systems & Student Empowerment

Much of personalized learning has been based on a machine or a person guiding students in what to do. This tailors instruction to students’ abilities, but it doesn’t give them much choice in the process. That’s why the future of personalized learning must center on systems that give students more agency in what they’re learning, said Joseph South, chief learning officer at the International Society for Technology in Education.

“The conversation we need to be having is how can we create personalized learning systems that empower students to make good choices about their learning and do not strip a sense of ownership from them over their learning,” South said. Schools also need a more holistic understanding of how students are doing. Because students often use multiple personalized learning platforms for different subjects, progress on math and progress on English are reported separately to their teachers. Ideally, student achievement would be reported on one platform — a challenging goal, because it requires companies to make their data interoperable, South said.

Finally, schools need to be more flexible in how they structure grades. If students are truly moving at their own pace, that pace will not align perfectly with their age and grade level. Some schools are already allowing students in different grades to join the math class that best fits their abilities, and technology could help expand these efforts, South said.

The Midterms Just Set Up Florida for a Rapid Expansion of School Reforms

What with recounts — plural — hogging the headlines, you may have missed the announcement that Manny Diaz Jr., a longtime Florida lawmaker with a keen interest in K-12 education policy, was selected to chair the state Senate’s education committee. The news did not, however, escape Travis Pillow, a Sunshine State expat and senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “#EdPolicy watchers are going to want to keep an eye on Florida over the next six months,” Pillow tweeted. “You don’t put@SenMannyDiazJr in charge of ed policy if you plan on standing still.”

A Hialeah Republican not to be confused with the former Miami mayor of the same name, Diaz in recent years has championed laws that opened the door to virtual education providers, tax-credit scholarships, and Schools of Hope — nonprofit charter schools located near chronically underperforming district schools. Coupled with former representative Ron DeSantis’s election as governor, Diaz’s ascension puts Republicans with aggressive school choice expansion agendas in all three key education policy posts in the state. Diaz’s counterpart in the state House of Representatives, where he served three terms, is Republican Jennifer Sullivan, a staunch supporter of homeschooling initiatives and tax-credit scholarships. DeSantis campaigned on a platform that included expansions of the state’s private school choice programs, an initiative to curtail the amount of education funding spent outside of classrooms, and — harking back most of a decade — to get rid of Florida’s version of the Common Core learning standards.

Texas’s $3 Billion Special Education Crisis

Two years after a Houston Chronicle investigation found that Texas schools had denied services to tens of thousands of students, the U.S. Department of Education found the state in violation of federal special education law. Propelled by a state policy to limit the number of students receiving services to 8.5 percent, school districts denied help to even profoundly disabled children. Now under orders to remedy the situation and make restitution to those rejected for services, one of America’s biggest education systems is going back to the drawing board.

As the legislature convenes in January for its biennial session, Texas’s broken school funding system will top its agenda. It’s not clear where the estimated $3.3 billion that may be needed to bring special education up to par will come from. Also unknown is where districts and charter schools will find enough qualified evaluators and special educators to assess and instruct possibly 150,000 students. “Texas is a cautionary tale that any policymaker who is trying to stem the growth in special ed or the costs should be paying attention to,” warned Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. “Rather than really owning where the problem has come from, I think we’re going to see this play out at the district level, with general ed pitted against special ed. How fair is that?”

Even if the money were to materialize, she’s troubled that the crisis flew under the radar for so long. “How are they going to address an accountability system that allowed this to go on for 12 years?” Morando Rhim asked. “What are the implications at the federal level?”

A Growing National Movement to Improve Family Engagement

When families have a say in their children’s education, students perform better. That’s why states are making the work of family engagement a priority in 2019. The Every Student Succeeds Act renewed federal support for family engagement, and Congress allotted $10 million in financial support for family engagement centers. Eleven states — from Connecticut to Ohio to Arizona — were chosen to receive part of this award, and in 2019 they will start using this money to support programs and policies that incorporate family participation in schools.

But the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement is trying to expand state support of this work beyond ESSA. The Virginia-based nonprofit created the State Consortium on Family Engagement, an effort to connect family engagement centers in each state with the groups most impacted by this work — from early education to higher ed to community organizations to special ed — and construct a framework for birth through grade 12. The first cohort of six states is just concluding the work it started in 2017 and will release its family engagement strategic plans this year. A second cohort of 12 states began crafting plans in 2018 and will continue into 2019, said Vito Borrello, the association’s executive director. “This kind of partnership and synergistic relationship at the state level is significant and could really advance the work systemically,” he said.

Teacher Strike Could Send Los Angeles Schools Into a Steeper Financial Spiral

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Unified School District may well see its first teacher strike in 30 years. United Teachers Los Angeles set the date one day after a neutral fact-finding report siding with the district on its salary offer was released Dec. 18. A strike can be averted only if L.A. Unified takes “a dramatically different approach” to contract negotiations, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a news conference. (The union has said it is willing to possibly return to the bargaining table today, pending an offer from the district.)

The nation’s second-largest school district and its teachers union have held polar opposite views of L.A. Unified’s finances during nearly two years of embattled contract negotiations. The district insists it is on a “fiscal cliff” and in danger of a county takeover. In its recently released “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report,” the district revealed that its unrestricted net deficit nearly doubled, from $10.9 billion to $19.6 billion, between 2017 and 2018. An L.A. Daily News op-ed calculated that this amounts to $4,180 for every man, woman, and child living in the district. The union, meanwhile, maintains that the district is sitting on reserve funds that schools desperately need to lower class sizes and hire nurses and other support staff.

A strike would have “a huge impact” on L.A. Unified financially, said Aaron Garth Smith, an education policy analyst for the right-leaning Reason Foundation. Neither side, he said, “is really talking about those long-term debt obligations,” such as hefty health benefits costs. And if L.A. Unified caves to union demands, it will only “make a bad situation worse … Anything that’s going to be spent is going to push [the district] closer and closer to that fiscal cliff.” Smith added that “district politics” could even prompt parents who are already frustrated with the quality of education to take their kids elsewhere, exacerbating L.A. Unified’s problematic declining enrollment. This strike “is the thing that could push them over the edge,” he said.

You’re About to Learn a Lot More About How Much Money Is Actually Making Its Way to Your School

ESSA requires public disclosure of how much is spent per pupil in each district and school across the country, and about 10 states are set to release that information sometime in early 2019. “We’ve been talking about this as money meets outcomes. We’ve been tracking outcomes by school for a long time, but we’ve sort of not sliced the financial data by school. We’ll now be able to pair spending and outcomes,” Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab and a professor at Georgetown University, told The 74.

She said she expects the data will be most useful to school board members and principals, who for the first time will have a good grasp on how much is spent per school, how that’s tracking with performance, and whether it’s leading to the outcomes school systems are working for, like closing the achievement gap. The early reporting states will disclose information from the 2017-18 school year; the rest of states, which will report on the 2018-19 academic year, will release information in late 2019 or early 2020.

Will the Supreme Court Deem DACA Unconstitutional?

Following more than a year of heated debates in Washington over the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the issue is far from settled. Experts predict that the Supreme Court will take up the issue by mid-2019.

In September 2017, the Trump administration announced it would end the DACA program, which provides deportation relief and work permits to roughly 700,000 people — including thousands of teachers and K-12 students — who were brought to the U.S. illegally as young children. “My prediction is that the court finds DACA unconstitutional and phases it out — not immediately ending it,” said Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But, of course, that means that day by day, DACA recipients begin losing their status. This will set off a new round of discussions about immigration policy and something to protect the DACA recipients.”

While the Supreme Court considers whether to take up the issue, there could also be a showdown in Congress, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Democrats, who just took majority control of the House of Representatives, could approve a proposal to extend DACA “temporarily or even permanently,” Capps said. Since the Senate will remain in Republican hands, however, he noted that it likely won’t take action absent a Supreme Court decision. “Even if the program ends, the Democrats and the president can’t seem to agree on immigration issues,” Capps said, “meaning it’s going to be hard to come up with a compromise solution.”

Minnesota Desegregation Lawsuit Could Have Broad Implications for District Design and School Choice

One of many cases centered on school integration policies, an old-school desegregation case is playing out in a state court in Minnesota. The architects of a 1990s lawsuit that used state funds to send impoverished Minneapolis students to suburban districts — to mixed results — have filed a new suit, and though the complaint does not specify a remedy, proponents have discussed creating a metro-wide district. If successful, the case could deal a fatal blow to the state’s most successful high-poverty charter schools, because although state law dictates that the schools use race-blind lotteries to enroll students, many offer culturally affirming programs that attract families of a single race or ethnicity.

“The interesting thing in my mind is it’s being pitched as a desegregation case, but it’s related to three pillars: desegregation and integration; to what extent do we value parental choice, especially among families of color; and school quality,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the Minnesota advocacy organization EdAllies, which is working with several charter schools that petitioned to join the case. “These pieces about choice and quality are going to come into play in the courtroom. That’s what’s going to be different about this go-round.” The Minnesota lawsuit is also one of a number of cases that charge children are being denied their right to a quality education, something guaranteed by state constitutions. In addition to integration, suits challenge school funding, illiteracy, and citizenship skills.

Following Through on All Those Campaign Trail Promises on Early Education

Candidates from both parties were elected or re-elected governor last year on platforms to expand early learning programs in their states. “When a governor takes a lead on this type of issue, it makes all the difference. They have the resources, they’re able to use their staff to really coordinate their groups on the ground, and then they’re able to work with the lawmakers,” said Tara Trujillo, director of state government relations at Save the Children Action Network. “I think you’re seeing more of a trend happening nationally, where more and more state leaders are working to make this a priority in their state budgets.”

Generally, some states will work on expanding full-day kindergarten or preschool for 3- or 4-year-olds, while others that have already done that are turning their focus to childcare. Policymakers will explore issues like training and pay for early childhood education workers, program quality, and how to spend an infusion of federal childcare grants, Helene Stebbins, deputy director of the Alliance for Early Success, told The 74.

New Oversight Challenges for Cities as States Hand Back Control of Major School Districts

Following the return of Detroit schools from state control to an elected school board in 2017, schools in New Orleans and Camden, New Jersey, are now under local control for the first time in years. The shifts bring both opportunities and challenges, as the re-empowered boards seek to continue improvements begun in schools under state oversight — and, in Detroit, to tackle stubborn problems that remain. “Camden and New Orleans, they are systems of autonomous schools,” noted Jason Weeby, a senior fellow at Bellwether Education Partners who advises education advocates on city-level reforms. “They are the first of a new breed of decentralized systems overseen by elected school boards.”

They’re being watched closely by folks who wonder whether they represent a sweet spot between state takeovers of chronically underperforming schools — frequently effective but also indifferent to local concerns — and traditional district governance models, in which elected boards are often too sensitive to pressure from interest groups to drive change. “Another trend I would watch is elected school boards driving the push for decentralized systems,” said Weeby, co-author of Eight Cities, a series of profiles of communities that have succeeded in increasing the number of students attending highly effective schools. Seven of the eight cities profiled are or were under state or mayoral control at some point in time, he said.

In Camden, the recently departed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard was a gubernatorial appointee. But according to Eight Cities, one element of his success — during his five-year tenure the number of failing schools fell from 23 to eight — was his focus on community engagement. In marked contrast, two years after state-run schools were returned to board control in Detroit, old challenges continue to dog both traditional district and public charter schools. Many of the city’s education leaders blame recent turmoil on state policies championed by the DeVos family before Betsy DeVos’s appointment as U.S. secretary of education.

This Year’s Most Important EDlection: A Pivotal Seat on the L.A. School Board

Less than two years after Los Angeles held the most expensive school board election in the nation’s history, with campaign expenditures reaching $17 million, voters will head to the polls in March for a special election to decide which faction will hold the majority in overseeing America’s second-largest school district. As in 2017, unions and education reformers will likely shell out big bucks hoping to win the pivotal seat on the seven-member board. Two years ago, a pair of seats were up for grabs, fueling donations and national attention. This time, it’s a special election for just one seat, and to fill out only one term, through December 2020.

It’s a contest with big implications. The new superintendent serves at the pleasure of the board, and with less than a year under his belt, Austin Beutner is poised to reveal his big plan this month for reimagining the district — which he will need the school board to approve. Beutner was appointed by the board in May and vowed to bring change to a district where less than half the students are proficient in reading and math, and slightly over half graduate eligible to apply to four-year California state universities. Also at risk are big goals the board’s reform majority has promised, like getting every student college- or career-ready and ensuring all students can read and do math at grade level by 2023.

Ten candidates, from parents to elected officials and educators, have qualified to appear on the March 5 ballot to fill the seat left vacant after Ref Rodriguez was forced to resign in July after pleading guilty to campaign money laundering. The backdrop for the early part of the 2019 campaign will likely be a teacher strike, United Teachers Los Angeles having announced in December it will walk off the job on Thursday. It’s unclear how the pressure and upheaval of a strike, particularly if it’s prolonged, could influence the election.

As the Business Community Invests in Social-Emotional Learning, Researchers Rush to Build Better Assessment tools

Research has shown that social-emotional learning can boost academics, improve graduation rates, and provide better health outcomes long into adulthood. Now, businesses are starting to get the message and invest in the SEL field. Recently, the Allstate Foundation committed $45 million to social-emotional learning over the next five years, a donation that will bring its investment in the field to $70 million. Part of that money will support the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the leading advocate in this area. LG Electronics USA also recently announced a partnership with CASEL to “enrich the lives of youth” over five years.

“I absolutely think that there is a significant growing recognition among the business community that social-emotional competence is a critical element to what makes a good employee, and to that end there has been an uptick in the business community, not just in their financial support of the field but in what they’re recognizing as the qualities they want to hire,” said Karen Niemi, president and CEO of CASEL.

In 2019, the field will also focus on how to implement high-quality tools or programs, Niemi said. Researchers have grappled with the best way to assess how students are learning social-emotional skills, such as collaboration, self-confidence, and self-management, by hosting assessment design competitions this past year. But measuring these soft skills can be challenging, which is why many states shied away from it as an ESSA accountability measure while simultaneously encouraging it in their classrooms.

A New Commitment to Students in Foster Care

School report cards released this winter are supposed to include information on how well students in foster care are achieving academically. But of the initial dozen report cards that have been released, only a few states are reporting this information — and experts aren’t surprised. Doing so, as required under ESSA, means that state departments of education must work with the state child welfare agencies to find out how many students are in foster care, which is a complex process.

“Once the data does come out, it’s our view that there is a likely chance of a severe undercount of students in foster care,” said Kristin Kelly, senior attorney and assistant director of education projects at the American Bar Association.

States are also supposed to provide transportation for students in foster care to a consistent school, so that even as they change family homes, their education is not disrupted. But an analysis last year by the Chronicle of Social Change found that nearly a dozen states were having trouble complying with this mandate. Whether states will be able to abide by federal law around foster care will be one focus in education, along with addressing trauma, overplacement of foster children in special education, and getting multiple systems — courts, child welfare, and schools — to work together to serve students.

The Next War Over School Discipline Reform

OK, we’ll admit it, one of our 2018 predictions was a little premature — but likely not by much. Last year, we predicted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would move swiftly to end Obama-era school discipline guidance, which urged schools to reduce their reliance on suspensions and warned that racial disparities in punishments could violate federal civil rights laws.

That didn’t happen — yet. But the Federal Commission on School Safety, which DeVos chairs, recommended the move in mid-December as part of a larger response to the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida. While we predict DeVos will accept that recommendation from herself, experts predict the heated debate is far from over in 2019.

Rep. Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, the new chairman of the House Education Committee, said Congress will “hold the administration accountable” on its obligation to enforce federal civil rights laws. The change in guidance will likely end civil rights investigations against school districts with disproportionate discipline rates, said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Discipline reform in districts will likely continue, however, because it “has strong legs that never relied much on the federal government.”

Newer, Higher Bureaucratic Hurdles for Charter Schools

Charter school leaders who want to open new schools or expand existing ones increasingly complain that their efforts are being stymied not in statehouses or by oversight entities but in hearing rooms and municipal offices where decisions about zoning codes, building plans, and other tangential matters are considered. Reports run the gamut from traditional school districts threatening to move their accounts from banks that finance charter school construction to city councils declaring moratoriums on charter schools within their boundaries.

“We are seeing increased assaults on charter schools across the country,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Opponents are stepping up their efforts to get anti-charter-school legislation enacted that would stop growth, cut funding, and re-regulate schools. They are filing an increasing number of frivolous lawsuits to district charter school supporters. And they are pushing districts to reject applications and cities to enact moratoriums.”

Discovering, and Then Sharing, Best Practices in Tackling Chronic Absenteeism

California last month added chronic absenteeism data to its updated school dashboard, a platform that rates districts, schools, and student groups on performance indicators such as test scores using a five-color scale: from red, the lowest, to blue, the highest. This means schools and districts with high levels of chronically absent students — defined as those missing 10 percent or more of the school year — are now identified with orange or red colors.

David Kopperud, a programs consultant with the state education department and chairman of the State School Attendance Review Board, said this change could incentivize districts to improve attendance rates in 2019. “I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from those in the red or orange for chronic absenteeism and having a lot of discussions with them about what they can do,” he said.

Kopperud hopes more “model” school attendance review boards will pop up statewide as well to mentor districts stuck in a red or orange designation. Model boards are local advisory panels recognized annually by the state for “exemplary practices to reduce chronic absenteeism and increase student attendance,” according to the department. Kopperud said he would be thrilled to have 30 model boards in 2019, up from 16 in 2018. Struggling districts “can get help from someone who’s actually doing the work,” he said. “That model of successful districts mentoring districts that are having problems with their chronic absenteeism rates is a really good model.”

Disclosure: Bellwether Education co-founder and partner Andrew Rotherham serves on The 74’s board of directors.

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