After Super Tuesday, 15 Key Education Issues to Keep Following in the States That Voted March 3

By Laura Fay and
Meghan Gallagher and
Steve Snyder
| February 27, 2020

By Laura Fay and
Meghan Gallagher and
Steve Snyder
February 27, 2020

Updated March 4

With a dense field of Democrats remaining in the presidential race leading up to March 3, Super Tuesday looks to be a pivotal party referendum on which candidate will have broad enough support to ultimately go the distance. (The 14 states and one territory voting this Tuesday compromise roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population).

Ahead of the decisive turnout, The 74 surveyed the key states, the biggest cities and the most attended school districts in search of the education story lines that may be driving local conversations — and leave voters more focused on particular policy issues. In California, the higher-education debate is transcending affordability to also touch on admissions requirements. In Minnesota, a top district is going through a controversial “redesign” process. In Texas, the political and legal fight surrounding schools in Houston — one of America’s largest districts — is escalating, as a state takeover aims to address persistently struggling schools and a dysfunctional board.

And then there’s the counselor crisis in Oklahoma, the spiraling segregation concerns in Massachusetts and a renewed debate in Utah over what counts as a “good school.” In Virginia, the opioid crisis is front and center as the state looks to launch its first school specially designed for teens in recovery.

Here’s a quick rundown and video roundup of the key education debates that could shape the Super Tuesday vote:

CALIFORNIA — Beyond the Free College Debate, New Concerns Over Who Qualifies for College (and How): When it comes to the early Democratic debates, most of the education discussion has focused on issues of college affordability or student debt. In California, however, this conversation about equity and social mobility has also extended to college admissions requirements and how that aligns with the K-12 policy discussion. Two recent headlines of note, both concerning admissions to the University of California system: a new debate surrounding whether applicants must submit SAT or ACT scores, and a controversial proposal to add an incoming math requirement that Los Angeles warns it would be unable to offer thousands of graduating seniors. A few links to go deeper:

● Admissions Requirements: Less than 25% of L.A. public school seniors last year took the type of elective class California State University wants to make a requirement (Read the full article)

● Standardized Tests: UC should keep SAT and ACT as admission requirements, faculty report says (Read the full article)

● Oversight: New California legislation targets college admissions process (Read the full article)

TEXAS — Despite Lawsuits, State Ed Agency Prepares for Houston Takeover: Lawsuits now surround the state’s plan to take over its largest district because of struggling schools and a dysfunctional board. But as the legal challenges work through the courts, the state commissioner is interviewing candidates for a “Board of Managers” to lift student performance during the takeover. Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath told Houston Public Media he is looking to gather a diverse, collaborative group of people who have high expectations for all students. Morath also said he wants the elected board members to stay involved during the takeover. The takeover will end gradually with three elected board members returning every two years “as soon as there are no more multi-year ‘F’ campuses and whatever other sort of underlying conditions that got us here” are fixed, Morath said. For further reading:

● Explainer: 7 things to know about the takeover in Houston (Read the full article)

● Legal Fight: Teachers sue Texas agency over school board takeover plan (Read the full article)

NORTH CAROLINA — Judge Says State Not Meeting Constitutional Obligation to Educate Students, Orders Officials to Improve Schools: State Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a court order giving the state 60 days to devise a plan to address education deficiencies after an independent consultant found that state funding hadn’t kept up with needs, leaving students further behind academically than they were in the 1990s. Gov. Roy Cooper responded by creating the Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, calling for increased funding to help fulfill the judge’s order. Lee backed recommendations from WestEd, which proposed a series of education changes, including increasing state education funding by $8 billion over the next eight years, reports T. Keung Hui for The News & Observer. The final report in the commission mirrored many other recommendations endorsed by Lee, and it indeed found that the state’s current funding is not sufficient to provide students with a sound basic education. (Read at The News & Observer)

MINNESOTA — Minneapolis Public Schools Board Vets Five Blueprints for District Redesign: The state’s third-largest district has released a comprehensive district design to overhaul its public schools after experiencing an exodus of families of color, notable achievement gaps (51-percentage-point difference in reading proficiency between white and minority students and a 52-percentage-point gap in math) and a growing budget deficit. The plan — which suggests closing entire schools and redrawing zones — has attracted negative feedback from parents who want their children to remain in the same schools and programs. Superintendent Ed Graf reminded everyone of the inequity driving the ambitious plan. “I recognize the significant impacts the Comprehensive District Design presents for all of us,” he said. “But I see this as my responsibility, my obligation as superintendent to find a way to ensure that every child — including those who are not well served by our current system — has access to the school programs, opportunities and experiences that they deserve.” The final plan is slated to be voted on at the April 14 board meeting. (Read at MinnPost.com)

● Segregation Study: The borders between school districts often mark extreme economic segregation — A new report outlines America’s 50 worst cases (Read the full article)

MASSACHUSETTS — Two-Thirds of Boston Students in ‘Intensely Segregated Schools’: More than half of Boston schools have become “intensely segregated” as the city has grown progressively older and many families have moved to the suburbs, warns a recent report from the Boston Foundation, a group focused on education and other local issues. The shift represents a “radical realignment” for the city, WBUR reports: “Since 1980 the city has lost nearly 6,000 middle-income households with children — and gained nearly 25,000 high-income households without children.” While the city is growing and becoming more diverse, the overall population is “more than three times as white as Boston’s public school population.” One researcher noted that children benefit socially and academically from learning in integrated classrooms: “The concern for Boston is that we’ve set up a school system that concentrates kids — not just by race, but also by income.” (Read more at WBUR as well as at Boston.com)

● Boston Profile: Why Boston’s most racially diverse school could also be the country’s most interesting school integration story (Read the full article)

VIRGINIA — Lawmakers Likely to Approve State’s First Recovery High School: Virginia legislators appear poised to pass a bill that would establish the state’s first-ever “recovery high school” to serve students struggling with addiction. The pilot program, expected to cost $1.75 million over two years, would likely launch inside an existing school in Chesterfield County and hire counselors and other staff who specialize in substance abuse issues. The school would be open to students from metro Richmond and the Tri-Cities region. The bill, which already passed the House of Delegates, is now in committee in the state Senate and “appears to be bound for the governor’s desk with bipartisan support,” Bill Atkinson reports in The Progress-Index. (Read more at WHSV as well as at The Progress-Index)

VERMONT — Assessing One of America’s Biggest Personalized Learning Experiments: Ever since the state’s “Flexible Pathways Initiative” launched in 2013, Vermont’s schools have embraced individual education plans and a push toward proficiency-based learning, in which students’ progress along an individual academic track is assessed for a cumulative grade. Now the state’s board of education is trying to get feedback from educators and administrators about how this PBL approach is working. The first board meeting of 2020 prioritized witnesses from across the state who spoke to their classroom experiences and the challenges and benefits of implementing this approach at their schools. The board is now relaying back a summary of its findings to the state legislature, as policymakers look ahead toward developing future policies. (Read more at the Rutland Herald)

ALABAMA — Serious Shortage of Skilled Workers Looms: If business leaders, educators and career tech programs don’t collaborate to prepare students for the workforce, Alabama will face a “frightening shortage of skilled workers” in just five years, a recent report showed. The paper from the Business Education Alliance of Alabama called for deeper collaboration between school and business leaders, more CTE training programs, more investment in the state’s pre-K program and targeted efforts to improve K-12 students’ math and reading scores. The authors also urged policymakers to develop a “more meaningful” way to measure college and career readiness and wrote that communities should have more local conversations about career pathways and credentials. (Read more at AL.com)

● CTE Coursework: New study finds that CTE classes are popular — but only 25 percent of students take courses that could lead to America’s biggest industries (Read the full article)

TENNESSEE — New School Voucher Program Faces Lawsuit From Local Leaders: Eight months before a new voucher program is set to take effect, the mayor of Nashville, with support from his school board, is suing to stop it. Passed after a contentious legislative fight in 2019, the program would provide families $7,300 in education savings accounts each year to use outside their neighborhood school. Only students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County, the state’s two largest districts, would be eligible for the state-funded program. Shelby County, which contains Memphis, has joined Nashville in the suit. “The lawsuit says the 2019 state law saddles those communities with an unfair financial burden by transferring state and local funds from struggling public schools to private schools,” Chalkbeat reports. (Read more at Chalkbeat as well as Education Week)

● Profile — Tennessee Education Chief Penny Schwinn: A radical plan for using schools to bring social services to rural areas and a whole-child approach to training teachers (Read the full interview)

AMERICAN SAMOA — Following Health Threats, Concerns Over Food Supply and School Lunches: Following a recent measles outbreak and rising concerns surrounding coronavirus, the availability of food for schools has emerged as a top priority for American Samoa, the U.S. territory in the South Pacific. Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga is “concerned about the perceived shortages of food items on the shelves of stores, and health care issues — measles and now coronavirus — disrupting shipping schedules to the island,” officials said. The federally funded school lunch program is one of the areas that could be affected, Fili Sagapolutele reports for Samoa News. The governor has appointed a commission to “assess the current status of food supply and make recommendations moving forward” and is asking local leaders to encourage their communities to grow their own food to supplement the imports if they can. American Samoa holds presidential caucuses but does not participate in the general election for president; 11 delegates are at stake in the Democratic contest there. (Read more at Samoa News)

COLORADO — Denver Youth at the Center of Escalating Gun Violence: Police, city leaders and gang violence prevention groups are reporting a disturbing trend in Denver: kids as young as 12 years old as both perpetrators and victims of gun violence. At least five Denver students have died from youth violence, and it’s only halfway through the school year, Chalkbeat reports. Schools like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College have implemented extensive safety measures, including clear backpacks, and improved mental health staff, but the more-than-occasional lockdowns and unrelenting threats have left students and staff paranoid. Principals have found themselves vetting students, wondering if mid-year transfers are gang-related. A senior at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College told the school board that this year has been the most stressful year of her life. Principals, teachers and students have requested opening an “engagement center” for students coming out of juvenile detention, and the district is working to ensure that impacted communities receive increased funding for afterschool activities. (Read more at Chalkbeat and The Denver Post)

● Students Raise Safety Issues on the Campaign Trail: Children are asking some of the “most powerful, emotional” questions of candidates about gun violence (Read the full story)

ARKANSAS — After Years of State Oversight, Little Rock Schools Return to Local Control: Protests consumed the state capital last fall when state officials initially said they would continue to oversee some struggling Little Rock schools, following five years of state control. As educators marched over concerns of further segregation of the top district, the hybrid plan was scrapped, and the district is now set to return to local control this year with some caveats. Following the election of a new board this fall, the new body will still require state approval to fire the superintendent, recognize a union or sue the state. (Read more at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

MAINE — State Math Scores Decline for Fourth Straight Year, Majority of Students Below Grade Level: Maine students’ math test scores slipped for the fourth straight year in 2019, confirmed by the latest round of standardized tests. Last year, 35.6 percent of students statewide performed at or above grade level in math on the federally required tests— down from 38.3 percent in 2015-16. However, English scores — which have fluctuated since the state began using its latest version of the Maine Educational Assessment, revealed that 55.9 percent of students scored at or above grade level, compared with 50.6 four years earlier. “The data is in no way reflective of individual student achievement, growth or potential, and should not be considered as the sole metric by which one would rate the learning within, or effectiveness of, any given school,” a Department of Education spokeswoman told the Bangor Daily News. (Read more at the Bangor Daily News)

UTAH — Education Committee Supports Dumping Utah’s School Grading Law: For the second year in a row, the House Education Committee has unanimously endorsed bill HB175 to quash the “controversial practice of assigning a single letter grade to each of the state’s public schools,” Benjamin Wood reports for The Salt Lake Tribune. However, the effort is an uphill battle in the Senate, which is currently presided over by Layton Republican Sen. Stuart Adams, an original sponsor of the state’s school grading law. The new system, sponsored by Rep. Marie Poulson, uses descriptors like “exemplary,” “typical” and “critical needs” in lieu of a grade of A, B, C, D or F and rates school performance on a range of metrics. The bill has received overwhelming support from education constituencies who argue that the grading system “oversimplifies the challenges and factors faced by educators.” Proponents of the grading system tout it as a “precise grading measure.” The latest version of the bill passed the House 70-0 and awaits action in the Utah Senate, according to KSL. (Read more at The Salt Lake Tribune as well as at KSL)

OKLAHOMA — State Needs 1,000 More Licensed School Counselors: State education numbers show that Oklahoma needs an additional 1,000 licensed school counselors to reach the recommended ratio of 250 students to 1 counselor. Expert Professor Rockey Robbins told KJRH: “Adolescents are in this stormy time of their lives, and to have an adult to talk to, that can be a security base for them to relate to. It can change people’s lives.” Oklahoma had the highest rate of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) nationwide in 2019, according to America’s Health Rankings. The University of Oklahoma is hoping to help solve the shortage and encourage working adults to join the field via new programs consisting of a four-year option with evening classes that are working-adult-friendly, a simplified path for teachers with master’s degrees and a grant that can be used to forgive student loans. (Read more at KJRH.com)

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