Music Education Policy Roundup – Mar 25, 2017

Read here for brief updates on policy developments affecting music education around the United States. These news items are compiled periodically by Lynn Tuttle, NAfME Director of Content and Policy, and include federal, state, and local items that may be of interest to music educators.

Federal Updates

DeVos: States should decide how often students are tested

Politico By Kimberly Hefling 03/24/2017 08:24 PM EDT

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared to take issue with federal law today, saying it should be up to states to decide how often students are tested.

“Testing is an important part of the equation but I think it’s really a matter for states to wrestle with, to decide how frequently the testing is actually done,” DeVos said in a television interview with WFTV in Orlando, Fla.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, maintains annual federal testing requirements in reading and math — a requirement backed by civil rights groups, the Chamber of Commerce and others who say it’s a critical part of making sure all students are consistently measured.

But in a nod to concern about over testing in U.S. classrooms, lawmakers included provisions in the law that allows federal funds to go to assessment audits and pilot programs that encourage innovation in testing.

DeVos, who supports turning more control over education to states and local school districts, said that “it’s really a matter for states and locals to determine how much testing is actually necessary for measuring what students are learning.”

“I think it’s important to know and understand, however, what they are learning and it’s important for parents to have that information so that they can be assured that their students are in the right place, that they are pursuing the right thing,” she said.

DeVos noted that ESSA includes requirements for measuring achievement.

“But each state is going to be tasked with the measurement around how that happens. And again, I think we are encouraging states to be innovative and creative around their plans — to think about where their students need to be five years from now, rather than where things are today,” she said. “So, I expect we’re going to see different approaches in different states.”


Groups seek to safeguard their involvement in state ESSA plans

Politico By Caitlin Emma 03/21/2017 12:18 PM EDT

Groups representing governors, teachers, administrators, parents and others want to ensure they’re heard as states develop plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The National Governors Association, the nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National School Boards Association, the National PTA and others sent a letter today to the Council of Chief State School Officers — the group representing state education chiefs nationwide.

The letter comes after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos removed from a new state ESSA guide a rigorous Obama requirement that states consult with a number of groups and individuals in developing their plans. The move incensed advocates and some policymakers, but CCSSO has assured that state education chiefs are doing that outreach and will continue to do so even if it isn’t spelled out that they do so.

In the letter, the groups said they believe CCSSO is now “obligated to make certain that every chief state school officer demonstrates clearly and explicitly in each state plan how stakeholders were involved in its development, and how they will continue this engagement during implementation, review and future revisions.”

The nation’s state education chiefs are in Washington this week for CCSSO’s annual legislative conference. As part of the event, they are meeting with DeVos and key lawmakers.

“We hope that CCSSO will monitor their members closely to ensure they uphold the law’s requirement for meaningful consultation with our members,” the groups wrote to state chiefs in the letter. “The promise of ESSA will ultimately not become a reality without it.”


Politico By Benjamin Wermund | 03/24/2017 05:45 AM EDT
With help from Caitlin Emma, Kimberly Hefling, Michael Stratford and Keshia Clukey

School districts across the country have declared themselves “sanctuaries” for immigrant students over the last few months in the face of the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. But the reality on the ground can be much more complicated as schools grapple with how to protect their students. “Sanctuary” isn’t a legal term — nor is it really a political term, in this context, says Francisco M. Negron Jr., chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association. Students, regardless of immigration status, have a constitutional right to access public education — and that means schools cannot do anything to chill that access, he told Morning Education. “Schools are complying with the law because students have a right to access public education — constitutionally, full stop,” he said. “Whether that’s considered sanctuary — that’s just a political definition. It’s clearly the law.”

It’s been long-standing policy that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials avoid schools, which are deemed “sensitive locations.” But even that has been called into question after a father was arrested late last month after dropping his daughter off at a Los Angeles charter school. President Donald Trump also issued an executive order in January that threatens funding for jurisdictions that declare themselves “sanctuaries” or “safe havens” for illegal immigrants.

California’s state schools superintendent joined a challenge of Trump’s order on Thursday, filing a friend-of-the-court brief in a case brought by Santa Clara County. The order places schools “who have merely identified themselves as safe havens for undocumented students, in the precarious position of losing large amounts of federal funds without warning, notice, or clear guidance,” Tom Torlakson wrote in the brief. California receives more than $8 billion annually in federal funds for kindergarten through 12-grade education.

The tensions surrounding the immigration debate were on display when press secretary Sean Spicer said the rape of a 14-year-old girl at a Maryland high school last week was an example of why the administration is committed to its immigration “crackdown.” The two students charged with raping the girl in a boy’s bathroom at Rockville High School were living in the country illegally, according to immigration officials. While Trump sees education as a “state-run and a local-run issue,” Spicer told reporters that “part of the reason the president has made enforcement a priority is because of tragedies like this.” Several threats have been made to the school, NBC reported, including several against “illegals” at the school.

The case overshadowed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ visit to a Montgomery County elementary school meant to encourage reading. DeVos and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday were met by a few dozen protesters outside Carderock Springs Elementary School, many carrying signs about the assault and immigration. Earlier this week, Hogan, a Republican, vowed to veto a “sanctuary bill” passed by the Maryland House of Delegates that would prevent local and state law enforcement and school officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Some were opposed to Hogan’s veto threat, while at least one protester held a sign expressing opposition to rapists in schools. DeVos expressed sympathy for the victim in a statement Thursday: “As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the center of these terrible circumstances.” Caitlin Emma has more.

It remains policy to avoid schools, a Homeland Security spokesperson told Morning Education. So-called “sensitive locations,” including schools, require either prior approval from a supervisory official or “exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action,” the spokesperson said. “DHS is committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation.”


Alexander: We’ll “do our best” on ESSA block grant funding
Politico By Michael Stratford 03/21/2017 10:29 AM EDT

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, said today that appropriators would “do our best” to fully fund the new Title IV block grant created by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The block grant, which was created by consolidating dozens of federal programs, provides support for a “well-rounded education” that includes technology, music, arts, social studies, civics and computer science education.

Alexander, speaking to the Council of Chief State School Officers, touted the increased flexibility that ESSA provides states on a range of issues.

“The problem is, we’ve given you all flexibility to use the money but less money to be flexible with,” Alexander said of Title IV funding.

“We will do our best,” said Alexander, who also chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing education funding. “We increased the authorizations for Title IV. That’s good. We need to match our aspirations in the authorization bill to our appropriations.”

ESSA authorizes $1.6 billion in funding for the block grant program — but recent appropriations proposals have called for far less money. President Barack Obama’s budget last year called for funding the program at $500 million. And a Senate appropriations bill last summer proposed $300 million in funding.

President Donald Trump’s “skinny budget,” released last week, did not indicate how much the administration would propose for funding the program.


Murray makes case against Trump education policy agenda
Politico By Michael Stratford 03/22/2017 01:45 PM EDT

Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, today previewed how Democrats plan to rebut the Trump administration’s efforts to advance “school choice” policies in the coming months.

Murray, who led Democrats’ efforts to paint Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as an unqualified billionaire with a web of potential financial conflicts of interest during her confirmation hearing, outlined her concerns with the substance of the Trump administration’s education policies in a 20-page memo.

Speaking at the Center for American Progress, Murray offered a policy-focused rebuttal to what she described as Trump and DeVos’ school privatization agenda that is “dangerous for students, teachers, parents and communities around the country that deserve strong public schools in their neighborhood.”

“Our system breaks down completely when it comes to public money going to private schools,” Murray said of the Trump administration’s expected plans to pursue a tax credit scholarship program or expand federal support for school vouchers. “There is not accountability. There is no transparency.”

In contrast, the Trump administration with DeVos as its most high-profile advocate, has argued that these types of options help low-income and minority children who might otherwise have no option but to go to a failing public school.

But, Murray said the Trump administration’s push to expand funding for alternatives to public schools comes at the expense of quality public education.

“Private schools receiving vouchers can skirt fundamental civil rights” protections for students, especially those with disabilities, she said.

“Providing more students with more choices sounds great, but that is not what their plans would do,” Murray said. “By diverting taxpayer funds from public to private schools, we are taking away parents’ and students’ choice to go to a quality public school.”

Murray said that the Trump “skinny budget” outline already showed that the administration wanted to make “major cuts to public school funding” like afterschool programs and teacher training to fund a “private education agenda.”


Politico, By Michael Stratford | 03/21/2017 05:44 AM EDT
With help from Caitlin Emma, Benjamin Wermund, and Kimberly Hefling

Days after the Trump administration released a budget blueprint that called for 13.5 percent cuts to the Education Department, Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered two substantially similar, anodyne speeches at different gatherings of state and local education leaders on Monday without taking questions from the audience or the media. DeVos stressed the budget proposal would invest in underserved communities by expanding funding to charter schools and publicly funded private school options. She said it also would build on programs proven to work while eliminating those considered ineffective, duplicative or best left to states and local districts. Recommended cuts include $2.4 billion in Title II, Part A funding, which helps schools and districts boost teacher and principal quality through professional development; and $1.2 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which helps fund after-school programs.

She will no longer testify before House appropriators Wednesday after OMB warned agency officials against discussing specifics not laid out in the blueprint. She did meet privately with state education chiefs Monday evening as part of the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual legislative conference. It’s not clear if they talked about the budget, but state leaders told Morning Education they have many questions about the administration’s priorities.

Republican Oklahoma Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the proposal to eliminate Title II, Part A funding could mean a $25 million loss for Oklahoma when the state has struggled to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies in recent years. Trump’s budget also channels $1.4 billion toward school choice, but Hofmeister said she wants to know more about how that would help rural students in Oklahoma who have few options beyond traditional public schools.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said he’s worried about a $40 million potential loss to his state if Congress agrees to slash funds to support teacher and principal quality. The state also gets more than $15 million for afterschool programs, which Chester calls a “valuable resource.” The “devil is in the details” when it comes to the school choice proposals,which are not described in any depth in the blueprint, Chester said.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt — fresh off a successful push to pass a law allowing charter schools in his state — noted that charter schools have done some “great things” for students nationwide. Trump’s budget would boost Charter Schools Program grants, which support the expansion of charter schools, by 50 percent from their current $333 million allocation. But Pruitt said he’s waiting on more details before commenting further.

Federal officials cancel budget testimony following White House warning
Politico By Sarah Ferris 03/20/2017 03:17 PM EDT

Two high-profile appropriations hearings were canceled today following a White House memo warning federal officials to curtail congressional testimony on the Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint.

The Office of Management and Budget released a memo Friday, stating that it is the administration’s “strong preference” for only top department and agency leaders to testify about their proposed budgets — guidance that bucks longstanding tradition.

The administration has also instructed federal witnesses to avoid commenting on spending levels beyond those outlined in the budget blueprint released last week.

“Until OMB releases the full FY 2018 Budget, all public comments of any sort should be limited to the information contained in the Budget Blueprint chapter for your agency,” states the memo, which was sent to all agencies.

Both canceled hearings were to be hosted by the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

The first panel, scheduled for Tuesday, would have included witnesses from the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse — all of which are targeted for drastic spending cuts under President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint.

A subcommittee hearing scheduled for Wednesday, featuring testimony from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was also canceled.

A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee said agency officials did not cite the OMB memo as the reason for the last-minute cancellations. “The agencies have said there were scheduling conflicts,” she said.


High court rules public schools must do more to educate special-needs kids
Politico By Caitlin Emma 03/22/2017 12:48 PM EDT

The Supreme Court today ruled Wednesday that school districts must go the extra mile to accommodate students with disabilities under federal special education law in a unanimous decision that could dramatically expand the rights of special education students.

All eight justices sided with the Colorado student in the case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, in one of the most significant special education cases in decades. Endrew was diagnosed with autism and his parents feel his public school and individualized education program failed him. They sought reimbursement for the cost of sending him to private school.

The ruling is a major victory for special education advocacy groups. The higher standard has been endorsed by the Obama administration, more than 100 current and former Democratic members of Congress and a host of special education advocates.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that a “child’s education program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”

“The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” the court said. “This standard is more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires public schools to provide students with disabilities a “free appropriate public education” — commonly called the FAPE requirement. But lower courts have split on what that means.

Tenth Circuit decisions, including one written by Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, have held that a child must receive largely minimal benefits for a school to comply with the law. Other courts have said that educational benefit should be more meaningful.

Endrew’s parents told the Douglas County School District in Colorado they were withdrawing him from public school where he had gone through kindergarten through fourth grade, and sending him to a private school that specializes in teaching children with autism. They sought tuition reimbursement for his private education. The school district argued that because Endrew made some progress in an individualized program, he had received a free appropriate public education under the law.


Father of autistic student: Gorsuch’s views ‘threatened’ son’s education
Politico By Benjamin Wermund 03/23/2017 11:19 AM EDT

The father of an autistic student against whom Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ruled in 2008 told senators Thursday that Gorsuch’s views “threatened” his son’s access to a quality education “and thus to a meaningful and dignified life.”

Jeffrey Perkins was one of several people testifying for and against Gorsuch’s nomination before the Senate Judiciary committee. He is the father of a student at the center of a 2008 Colorado case in which the 10th Circuit Court unanimously sided with a school district that the parents claimed was failing to educate their child. Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the court.

While the student showed some progress in classes, he didn’t seem to retain what he’d learned. Gorsuch wrote the opinion, which reversed three prior rulings, arguing the school had complied with federal disability law because the student needed to show gains that were “merely more than de minimis.”

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that public schools must go the extra mile to educate special needs children. The decision specifically challenges the legal standard used by the 10th Circuit to interpret the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires a “free and appropriate public education” for disabled students.

“Thank you for giving me a voice to my son, Luke, whose access to an appropriate education, and thus to a meaningful and dignified life, was threatened by views of Judge Neil Gorsuch,” Perkins said. “Judge Gorsuch thought that an education for my son that was even on small step above insignificant was acceptable.”

Gorsuch on Wednesday said that as a judge, he was bound by precedent in deciding the case.

“If anyone is suggesting that I like a result where an autistic child happens to lose, that’s a heartbreaking accusation to me. Heartbreaking,” Gorsuch told senators. “I was wrong because I was bound by circuit precedent and I’m sorry.”


Senate GOP quashes nomination of New Mexico education secretary
Politico By Caitlin Emma 03/23/2017 05:01 AM EDT

The Trump administration recently reversed plans to nominate New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera for a top Education Department job after several Senate Republicans raised concerns about her support for the controversial Common Core standards, POLITICO has learned.

A senior GOP aide told POLITICO that “about a dozen Republican offices were skeptical that they could ever vote yes” on Skandera due to her support for the standards regarded as a symbol of federal overreach by many conservatives.

The aide said that those lawmakers expressed misgivings about having to cast votes over another controversial education nominee so soon after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ bruising hearing. DeVos squeaked through only with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote after Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cast no votes.

The decision to pull back an offer to Skandera comes as the administration has yet to publicly nominate candidates for any of the top Education Department positions below the secretary level. A lack of top staff could threaten its rollout of major priorities and hamper critical work, like helping states design new K-12 plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The administration is also pursuing an ambitious budget investment in the expansion of school choice, like charter schools and publicly funded private school options.

Skandera, who serves as a member of the governing board for the Common-Core aligned PARCC test, declined to comment. POLITICO reported in December she was under consideration for a top Education post, because of her extensive K-12 and higher education experience to the table.

“Hanna was as good a candidate as they were ever going to get and they do need someone of that intelligence and stature as part of that team,” said one advocate close to Skandera who asked not to be named.

But the offer to serve as assistant secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, a Senate-confirmable position, appears to have been extended before it was presented to key Republicans, according to several sources familiar with the issue who asked to remain anonymous.

One Republican source said DeVos called Skandera to offer the job and subsequently called back to retract it. However, an Education Department official disputed that account, saying DeVos never personally made an offer. The official referred POLITICO to the White House, where a spokesman said he could not comment on personnel.

More than 40 states voluntarily adopted the Common Core standards in math and English, but they are reviled by many conservatives. While the Obama administration never required their adoption, it incentivized states to adopt more rigorous academic standards like the Common Core through billions of dollars in competitive grants and waivers from the more punitive pieces of No Child Left Behind.

Several beachhead hires at the Education Department — in addition to DeVos — also have ties to groups supportive of the standards, much to the consternation of anti-Common Core conservatives.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2016, explicitly prohibits the Education secretary from mandating that states adopt certain academic standards. DeVos said last month that ESSA “essentially does away with the notion of a Common Core.”

Many in the education policy community had speculated that Skandera, who has about a year and a half left as New Mexico’s education secretary, might get a national post as her next career move.

She was nominated for her New Mexico post by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in 2011, but not confirmed until 2015 after resistance by the Democrat-controlled state Senate. Democrats have criticized Skandera for her focus on standardized testing. She has also had a contentious relationship with teachers unions, who sued her over the state’s teacher evaluation system.

Skandera was previously Florida’s deputy commissioner of education under former Gov. Jeb Bush, also a strong supporter of the Common Core. Skandera is a member of the education reform group Chiefs for Change, which used to receive financial support from Bush’s education advocacy group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

She also was a senior policy adviser and deputy chief of staff at the Education Department under former Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under George W. Bush. And she was undersecretary for education for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.


DeVos expresses support for year-round Pell grants

Politico By Michael Stratford 03/24/2017 01:24 PM EDT

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said today that restoring eligibility for year-round Pell grants is “definitely on the plate to be considered” by the Trump administration.

DeVos told a student roundtable at Valencia College in Florida that the need to create more flexibility in how students use Pell grants has been “a common theme” she’s been hearing since becoming secretary last month.

DeVos said that the restrictions on Pell grant eligibility that prevent students from using them year-round reflect “the federal government trying to be a top down, one-size-fits-all solution to everything.” She added that “our orientation really does need to be around flexibility and meeting the needs of students at their level.”

The Trump administration’s “skinny budget” released last month did not mention reversing the 2011 prohibition on year-round Pell grants. But it did propose a “cancellation” of nearly $4 billion of the estimated $10.6 billion surplus in the program. Student aid advocates have proposed using some of the surplus to fund year-round Pell.

Senate appropriators last summer struck a bipartisan deal to revive year-round Pell grants, including the measure in an appropriations bill that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee. But House Republicans did not include the measure in their education funding bill.

House Speaker Paul Ryan also announced his support for year-round Pell grants last month.


Former for-profit college lobbyist quits job as DeVos adviser
Politico By Michael Stratford 03/20/2017 05:14 PM EDT

Taylor Hansen, a former lobbyist for the for-profit college industry, is no longer an adviser to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a department spokesman confirmed today.

“Mr. Hansen has resigned from the beachhead team and is no longer an employee of the Department of Education,” Jim Bradshaw, a department spokesman said in email. “He served ably and without conflict and decided his service had run its course. We’re grateful for his contributions and have no further comment at this time.”

Hansen’s resignation, which was made effective on Friday and first reported by Bloomberg , came amid criticism that his role at the department presented a conflict of interest. Hansen previously directed legislative and regulatory affairs at the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (which is now called Career Education Colleges and Universities) for nearly three years and was also a Republican staffer on the House education committee. He more recently worked for the Center for Education Reform.

“Mr. Hansen’s recent employment history clearly calls into question his impartiality in dealing with higher education issues at the Department of Education, and raises alarming conflicts of interest concerns,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a letter to DeVos on Friday.

Hansen is also the son of Bill Hansen, the former deputy secretary of education during the George W. Bush administration who leads Strada Education Network, which previously was called United Student Aid Funds when it operated a guaranty agency.

The Education Department last week reversed an Obama administration directive that prohibited USA Funds and other guaranty agencies from charging certain student loan collection fees. The guaranty agency had sued the Education Department over the guidance, which it said cost the organization millions of dollars in fees.

Hansen was part of DeVos’ meeting last month with leaders of nearly a dozen public universities, according to the department.


State Updates

Kentucky governor signs bill allowing charter schools

Politico By Kimberly Hefling 03/22/2017 03:17 PM EDT

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed a bill today that paves the way for Kentucky to open charter schools — a victory for charter advocates in a state that has long been one of the last holdouts.

Bevin, a Republican, called the new law “a truly momentous step forward in providing quality choices for Kentucky’s most vulnerable students.”

Before today, Kentucky was one of just seven states that didn’t allow charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Under the new law, the mayors of Louisville and Lexington and local school districts can authorize an unlimited number of charter schools. But the first schools are not expected to open until the 2018-19 school year, the Courier-Journal reported.


New maps coming to Boston schools

Officials in Boston are replacing classroom maps in the city’s schools that use the Mercator projection with new ones based on the Gall-Peters projection. The move is part of an effort to move beyond Eurocentric viewpoints in the classroom, said Colin Rose, assistant superintendent in charge of the Boston Public Schools’ Office of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps.


New York: 21st Century Community Learning Centers across the state get $78M in federal grants
Politico By Keshia Clukey 03/20/2017 01:38 PM EDT

More than $78 million in federal grants will go towards expanding or establishing 21st Century Community Learning Centers over five years across New York, the state Education Department announced today.

The funding for the first year is guaranteed, but the remaining four years are subject to the availability of funds through the federal education department. The funds are not included in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, according to the state Education Department.

The grants are intended to help provide opportunities for academic enrichment for students attending low-performing schools and offer supplemental services like youth development programs, after school activities, health and wellness education and counseling, according to a news release. The grants can also be used to help families become more involved in their child’s education.

“This funding will allow more schools to reach even more of our young people, especially those who would need them the most,” state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in the release. “That is why it is imperative that the federal government continues to fund this important program in the coming years.”

Under the grants, New York City public schools and city-based not-for-profits were awarded nearly $43 million, and the rest of the Big 5 — Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Yonkers — will receive $11 million. The remaining $25 million will go to districts and community organizations across the state.

View the list of grant awardees here.

Push to Raise UT Income Tax to Help Schools Moving Ahead
A group backed by business leaders said this week they plan to move ahead with a push to get Utah voters to raise the state income tax to generate an extra $750 million annually to address a teacher shortage, crowded classrooms and other school needs. (Associated Press, March 18)


Florida: Plan moves ahead to convert Jefferson County schools into state’s first all-charter district
Politico By Jessica Bakeman 03/22/2017 04:24 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE — State education officials seem to be relieved that a plan to convert Jefferson County schools into Florida’s first all-charter district is moving forward.

The state Board of Education praised the local school board’s Tuesday night decision to approve a proposal from a south Florida charter school chain to take over operations. The choice was a difficult one that was in the best interest of the district’s more than 700 students, education commissioner Pam Stewart said Wednesday.

During a Board of Education meeting at the Capitol, Stewart reflected on the lenghty process taken by state administrators to chart a path forward for the small, rural north Florida district, which has struggled with low academic performance and severe fiscal stress.

“Sadly, the amount of time that we have spent is a drop in the bucket when we look at the years that the county’s families have waited to have stable, quality schools to rely on to provide their children with the skills and knowledge they deserve,” Stewart said. “It is those children and their right to learn that has motivated us to trudge through this frustration.

“Jefferson County’s school board was facing a crucial decision, and I am so proud of them that they chose to put the students first,” she said.

After state policymakers last month approved the district’s plan to convert its elementary and combined middle-high schools into charter schools, the district fielded preliminary plans from three charter operators. Only one ultimately put forth a formal proposal: the south Florida-based Somerset Academy, Inc., which currently operates 16 charters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The school board voted unanimously on Tuesday night to approve Somerset’s plan, under which there would be three separate charter schools — an elementary, middle and high school — housed in one building.

“Splitting into three schools will increase funding opportunities, but more importantly, increase the laser-like focus on students at all levels,” Hershel Lyons, chancellor of K-12 public schools for the state Department of Education, said during the Wednesday meeting.

The district and charter operator will finalize a contract by early April, Lyons said.

Lyons invited a former Jefferson County student to speak at the meeting. Denzel Whitfield graduated from the county’s high school in 2012 and then from Florida Atlantic University last year. The defensive tackle is currently being scouted to play in the NFL.

Whitfield said he hopes administrators, teachers, parents and students can come together to make the transformed district a success so more students can have the opportunity to go to college like he did.

“We have to be one voice,” he said. “For some of the parents and even the students, I encourage them to express any concerns — the more they get out and express their problems and anything that’s going on, the more we are going to be able to create a solution.”


Florida: State education officials probe potential graduation rate padding
Politico By Jessica Bakeman 03/22/2017 04:24 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — State education officials are probing whether districts are artificially inflating the state’s record-level graduation rates by transferring out struggling students during their senior year.

Commissioner Pam Stewart said Department of Education staff members have begun a review of the practice by districts to remove students from their rosters during their senior year after the students leave for alternative, private or home school programs.

“The reason this is potentially concerning is that if it is done inappropriately or without good reason, the school, district and state graduation rates may not be a complete picture of our students’ performance,” Stewart said during the meeting.

Florida’s high school graduation rate reached a record high of 80.7 percent in 2015-16.

She said staff would compile the results of the survey and develop recommendations for how the board should address potential abuses in the future.

The move comes after a ProPublica investigation last month showed high-performing public high schools around the country, including in Orlando, are keeping their graduation rates up by sending students who are unlikely to finish to alternative charter schools run by for-profit companies.

Gary Chartrand, a member and former chair of the board who also leads a Jacksonville charter school, said the ProPublica story contained “a very serious allegation that I hope we get to the bottom of.”

Board chair Marva Johnson asked the department to also report back on the effectiveness of alternative education programs more broadly.


VETOING SCHOOL CHOICE IN VIRGINIA: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed multiple education-related bills on Thursday that he says would “undermine support for Virginia’s public education system.” The bills would encourage the growth of charter and virtual schools. More from WSET.


New Jersey: Newark’s response to lawsuit shows teacher seniority rule is harmful, group says
Politico By Linh Tat 03/23/2017 04:32 PM EDT

An education reform group backing a lawsuit brought by six Newark families said today the legal response from the state’s largest public school system supports the plaintiffs’ assertions that seniority rules for teacher layoffs must go.

Districts that reduce staff for budgetary reasons must lay off teachers in reverse order of when they were hired, without taking into account their performance. The “last in, first out” law results in ineffective teachers with seniority to remain in the classroom while newer, more effective teachers are let go, the plaintiffs claim.

Newark Public Schools, one of the named defendants, filed a response this week in which it did not dispute some of the plaintiffs’ claims, the education reform group Partnership for Educational Justice said in a statement.

For example, PEJ said, the district admitted that enforcing LIFO would remove quality teachers from classrooms, that the law makes it difficult to attract and retain effective teachers, and that the district’s practice of keeping ineffective teachers on the payroll but not placing them in classrooms in response to LIFO is unsustainable.

“The district admits that NJ’s LIFO law ‘protects the interests of adults over the rights of the children of Newark’ and forces the district into an impossible dilemma: either divert increasingly limited resources to avoid layoffs or deny high-performing teachers to 8,000 students per year,” PEJ executive director Ralia Polechronis said in the statement. “These admissions are a giant step forward for the … plaintiffs to prove their constitutional claims in a court of law.”

PEJ provided the media with a copy of Newark’s response. A spokesman for Newark Public Schools confirmed the district did file the response but, citing the ongoing litigation, declined further comment.

In addition to the Newark district, the state Board of Education and New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Kimberley Harrington, are also named as defendants in the suit.


Tenn. district seeks to restructure teacher pay

A Tennessee school district has proposed earmarking $10.7 million to restructure teacher pay, awarding raises based on classroom evaluations and student test scores. The proposed structure would also give bonuses to highly rated teachers with advanced degrees in their subjects, officials said.


The bathroom bill that ate North Carolina
Politico By Elena Schneider 03/23/2017 01:17 PM EDT

RALEIGH, N.C. — On a 200-mile drive from the state capital to Kings Mountain, N.C., a tiny town where the Charlotte suburbs fade into the Appalachian foothills, state Rep. Chuck McGrady told House Speaker Tim Moore, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, not to do it.

“We shouldn’t go down this road,” McGrady told Moore just more than a year ago, as he gave his fellow legislator a lift home from session while Moore’s car was in the shop. The warning came days after Charlotte’s city council passed an ordinance that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of their choosing. At the time, Moore was “trying to figure out what they might do” in response, McGrady said. “I told him, ‘Let’s take our time with this.’”

But Moore, who declined to be interviewed for this story, didn’t take McGrady’s advice. In a one-day special session last March, the Republican-controlled supermajority passed House Bill 2, effectively banning legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and requiring North Carolinians to use the bathroom assigned by their birth certificate in public places.

The backlash was swift, redefining North Carolina in the year that has elapsed since the bill’s passage, as critics and lawsuits have taken aim at what opponents view as an overly broad law that mandates discrimination against the LGBT community. The NBA relocated its All-Star game, while a long list of big businesses, like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Dow Chemical, demanded a repeal. Forbes estimated the state had suffered $630 million in losses as of last fall. And the repercussions show little signs of easing after a year marred by boycotts, partisan rancor and finger-pointing—nearly two-thirds of North Carolina voters say they would rather eliminate HB2’s negative economic impact over enforcing the law.

In November, voters had their say on HB2 — and the message they sent was … not at all clear. They booted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who had vigorously defended HB2, out of office and elected Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who ran on repealing it, by a razor-thin margin. They also re-elected Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who wrapped himself in HB2 and won more votes statewide than Cooper or even Donald Trump, who carried the state easily. Republicans also maintained their supermajority in the General Assembly.

All of which helps explain why, despite the polls, despite Cooper’s commitment to tossing out the law, despite Republican leadership’s willingness to cut a deal, despite the unrelenting pressure from the business community, HB2 is still there. And after months of abandoned compromises to address the law, it’s become harder to distinguish good-faith efforts from political theater. Walking along the cinder block hallways of the state legislative building in recent days, I found the HB2 mess hangs over legislators like a cloud.

“Frustration, depression, anxiety, exasperation — it’s all that and more,” said state Rep. Ken Goodman, a moderate Democrat from eastern North Carolina, sighing heavily after each noun. “It has sucked all the air out of that building for a year, and we’re all suffocating.”

There is a ticking clock, as legislators continue to grapple over HB2 compromises. The NCAA, which already punished in-state basketball powerhouses Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill by moving March Madness games out of the state this year, will announce site selections for the next six years of championship games in April. We’ve come so far as to find UNC coach Roy Williams lamenting Duke’s defeat last week, citing the loss of a hometown crowd as an explanation. But the NCAA games won’t be coming back to North Carolina — a state where college basketball is practically its own religion — without a repeal.

And in much of North Carolina’s rural counties — areas that don’t play host to NCAA games, but watch them on TV — HB2 is still popular. These communities are bastions of social conservatism, where HB2 is seen as a necessary shield to protect the safety and privacy of bathrooms.

Repeal proposals are still flying back and forth — or alternatives like adding “religious freedom” legislation — but prospects for unwinding the law remain dim, as distrust runs rampant. And the issue is further complicated by the statewide ambitions of Moore and President Pro Tem Phil Berger, as confirmed by half a dozen GOP sources familiar with these conversations. A glossy, 24-inch by 11-inch portrait of Berger, a mailer touting his leadership, showed up in Republican households in recent weeks.

“The politics of political ambition are driving the internal politics of the legislative caucuses,” one Republican strategist in the state said of Moore and Berger. The source added that the two GOP leaders are squeezed on both sides, as they don’t want to invite “possible primary challengers from the right” and must not lose their donors in the business community, who want HB2 gone.

As for Cooper, whose political office has been stripped of some its power by the General Assembly, he comes across as almost helpless. “They all know HB2 has been bad for North Carolina, but the politics of it is…” the governor said in an interview, letting his words trail off into a brief silence. “They’re choosing that over fixing the public policy problem that they know exists because of their inner war with their caucus.”


NC – More Standardized Final Exams Would Go Away in House Bill
Some North Carolina legislators are advancing a bill that would eliminate more standardized exams for public school students, many of them in high school. (Associated Press, March 21)


TX – Senate Education Committee Passes School Choice Bill
After little debate Thursday, the Senate Education Committee voted 7-3 to pass legislation that would create two public programs subsidizing private school tuition and homeschooling expenses. (Texas Tribune, March 23)


Research and other points of interest


Education Commission of the States –  policy report, Examining SLDS Development and Utility, explores statewide longitudinal data systems, including benefits and obstacles of connecting education data, and provides a comprehensive look at data systems in three states through detailed case studies.


Politico, 03/24/17, By Benjamin Wermund

The Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit focused on promoting access to higher education, is out with what it says is the first study to look at how the increasing price tags for more than 2,000 colleges are leaving out entire segments of the population. The takeaway: While the wealthiest students could afford to attend 90 percent of colleges in the sample, those with fewer resources could afford to attend only between 1 and 5 percent of colleges. “Our analysis confirms what many low- and moderate-income Americans already know — and what policymakers and institutional leaders need to understand — about how unaffordable college has become,” the study says. “While it is clear that very few colleges meet a reasonable threshold of affordability for students of modest means, federal, state, and institutional policymakers can help level the playing field.” Read it here.

Turning Down Top Choices
Almost one-fifth of students who were admitted to their top choice of college or university in 2016 but decided not to go there turned it down because of the cost of attendance, according to new data from Royall & Co. (Inside Higher Ed, March 23)


National program takes aim at teacher shortage

American Board, a national nonprofit created in 2001 by the US Department Education, is hoping to recruit more teachers, offering them a faster, cheaper path to the classroom. The program, which requires a bachelor’s degree and a background check, has helped more than 6,000 people become educators in areas such as math, physics and English. WLTX-TV (Columbia, S.C.) (3/20)