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January 26, 2016 8 min read
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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

Districts Aren’t Keeping Track Of the Textbooks Schools Use

If you want to find out what math textbooks a district is using, just ask the central office, right? According to University of Southern California researcher Morgan Polikoff, it’s not quite that easy.

Polikoff is in the throes of an ambitious study on textbook adoption, in which he and a group of students are looking at which textbooks are being used in the five most-populated states—California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.

“Knowledge of what is going on inside schools strikes me as the most basic function of the district office,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “And yet I would estimate around 10 percent of the districts that have responded to my FOIA [i.e., Freedom of Information Act] requests have said they have no documents listing the textbooks in use, and probably another 30-50 percent clearly have to invent such a document to satisfy my request.”

As Polikoff explained in an interview, California collects textbook information from districts, but it’s in PDFs, so there’s no standard reporting language. Deciphering that has been one part of his research project. For the other four states, he’s sent three rounds of FOIAs to individual districts, and so far, about three-quarters have responded.

In his blog post, Polikoff quoted a letter from the Chicago district. Pulling a list of math and science textbooks by grade, it said, would be “unduly burdensome in nature and would require extensive resources to both search for information, which would most likely require a manual school-by-school search, and analysis to determine the other data points you are seeking.” Chicago denied his request.

The New York City district has sent six letters asking for one-month extensions, Polikoff said. He expects to be denied there eventually as well.

“This is totally anecdotal, but districts that don’t know or don’t give me information tend to be at two extremes—either huge districts or unbelievably small districts with, like, two schools,” he explained. That said, many large districts in Florida, including Miami and Hillsborough County, have sent him textbook lists.

Polikoff has also studied textbooks’ claims of alignment to the Common Core State Standards, which he says are generally a sham.

–Liana Heitin

| NEWS | Early Years

States Again Focus on Early Education, But Will Action Follow?

From the president’s State of the Union Address to a board of commissioners meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich., early education is once again on the lips of legislators and policymakers in 2016.

Last year, there was far more talk about expanding early-childhood education than action toward it. The talk has started again.

President Barack Obama has made a habit, since 2013, of making preschool a part of the education policy section of the annual State of the Union Address. His final such address was no exception, though early childhood was more of a passing mention than a focal point.

But Obama isn’t the only politician with preschool on his mind. In the first few weeks of the new year, talk is coming fast and furious, from both sides of the political aisle.

Iowa House Minority Leader, Mark Smith, a Democrat, pledged to work harder to expand early education there.

New Mexico lawmaker Rep. Javier Martinez, also a Democrat, came out with a strongly worded opinion piece in the Albuquerque Journal in rebuttal to an earlier editorial there positing that proponents of using land-grant funds to expand early-childhood education in the state were unprepared to actually launch an expansion.

In California, the new speaker of the state Assembly, Anthony Rendon, reiterated his commitment to early-childhood education. Meanwhile, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, made early reading a key part of his State of the State address. Nebraska state Sen. Heath Mello, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would use a series of state tax credits to expand early education. And an advocacy group in Kent County, Mich., is set to renew its request to the board of commissioners for a new property tax to fund expanded early education.

Some states, like New Mexico, have had ongoing debates that show little sign of reaching resolution any time soon. Others, like California, have had strong legislative movements toward change vetoed by strong governors. And there are other variations: Montana’s governor has pushed for expansion, while the state legislature has taken no action on the matter.

Whatever the circumstances, the pace of public preschools and other early-education services has been incredibly slow. We’ll see if 2016 is any different.

–Lillian Mongeau

| NEWS | Charters & Choice

Indiana Unseats Minnesota In Charter-Law Rankings

Indiana has for the first time come out on top of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual ranking of state laws.

Indiana climbed five places to unseat Minnesota, which has held the No. 1 spot almost every year since 2010, when the alliance first started issuing the report. Minnesota was the first state in the country to pass a charter law.

Ohio also climbed several spots, to 23rd place, after lawmakers there overhauled the state’s charter law this fall.

Of the states that have charter school laws, Maryland remains at the bottom of the ranking at 43rd.

The national alliance ranks states based on a variety of metrics, including whether charter schools are held accountable for their performance, have equitable access to facilities, or have caps on their growth.

–Arianna Prothero

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Jeb Bush Lays Out Education Plan In Quest for GOP Presidential Nod

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—who has the deepest education résumé of any GOP presidential contender—wants to make it a whole lot easier for parents to use federal funds to send their children to the school of their choice, according to his newly unveiled education plan.

The plan, whose rollout was timed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in order to elevate education’s importance as a civil rights issue, includes ideas that past Republican presidential contenders and members of Congress have pitched. It even dovetails with President Barack Obama’s K-12 playbook in a couple areas.

Among other K-12 elements, the plan, which Bush says is “budget neutral,” would:

• Let families consolidate 529 college-savings plans into education savings accounts, or ESAs, that could also be used for prekindergarten, elementary school, high school, job training, online courses, and more.

• Allow states to consolidate some 40 federal education programs and use the money to offer low-income families with children younger than 5 annual ESA deposits of up to $2,500. States could also allow federal Title I funds for low-income students and federal money for special education to follow children to the school of their choice.

• Offer schools that make big academic progress extra money as a reward. (That’s something Obama has pitched, too.)

• Reward teachers in schools that make student-achievement gains with extra pay and other incentives. (That’s something Bush pushed for as governor of Florida. Obama then took the idea national with Race to the Top and Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers, with decidedly mixed results.)

• Double federal resources for charter schools and expand the District of Columbia voucher program.

Less than a year ago, Bush was expected to be a front-runner for the GOP nod, and his record and interest in education were supposed to help him stand out from the pack. But he has struggled in the polls and is now considered a dark horse for the nomination.

Bush remains only one of two GOP candidates (along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich) who continue to support the Common Core State Standards. Other GOP contenders have attacked him for that position.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | The School Law Blog

Case Involving Church-State Aid To Get Hearing at Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted review of a church-state case that could hold major implications for government aid to religious schools.

The justices agreed Jan. 15 to hear the appeal of a Lutheran church and preschool in Missouri that was denied a grant from a state program to use recycled tires to build safer playgrounds. The denial, by a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, was based on the Missouri Constitution’s prohibition against providing any money “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”

The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley (No. 15-577), has significance well beyond scrap-tire remnants and preschool playgrounds.

“The rule adopted by the 8th Circuit—and numerous other courts—threatens to marginalize religious schools, churches, and other faith-based entities from public life in the United States by licensing religious discrimination against them in the administration of public benefits,” says a friend-of-the-court brief filed on the Lutheran church’s side by the Association of Christian Schools International, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group whose membership includes more than 3,000 schools in the United States (and more than 20,000 abroad).

The Trinity Lutheran church contends the 8th Circuit court mistakenly interpreted a 2004 Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey, as requiring the exclusion of a church from a neutral state aid program where there was no valid concern that the aid would amount to a government establishment of religion.

The case is likely to be argued in March or April, with a decision due by late June.

–Mark Walsh

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

School-Lunch Compromise Bill Moved Forward by Senate Panel

The Senate Agriculture Committee has approved a bill that would reauthorize child-nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

The legislation would ease the controversial nutrition standards created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (the current version of the law), though it would not eliminate as many of the provisions as some child-health organizations had feared.

The measure now faces consideration by the Senate. It drew praise from advocacy groups on all sides of the nutrition debate, but some school administrator groups said it wouldn’t go far enough to ease administrative burdens and costly provisions.

The bill would, among other things, delay new sodium restrictions from 2017 to 2019. It would also ease requirements so that only 80 percent of grain items must be whole-grain-rich, rather than 100 percent.

In addition, the bill would maintain requirements that schools serve fresh fruits and vegetables, provide grants and loan assistance for school kitchen-equipment upgrades, and create new requirements for verifying eligibility of some participating students.

–Evie Blad

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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