Briefly Stated: August 16, 2023

August 15, 2023 8 min read
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White House Takes Aim at Bolstering K-12 Cybersecurity

School districts may as well have a painted target on their backs when it comes to cyber criminals. Now, the Biden administration hopes to come to their rescue.

The U.S. Department of Education will establish a “government coordinating council” that will facilitate formal collaboration among all levels of government and school districts to host training activities, recommend policies, and communicate best practices to ensure schools are prepared to respond to and recover from cybersecurity threats and attacks.

The White House announced the initiative to strengthen schools’ security this month.

The K12 Security Information Exchange, a nonprofit focused on helping schools prevent cyberattacks, estimates that there have been more than 1,330 publicly disclosed attacks since 2016, when the organization first began tracking these incidents. Hackers have targeted districts of all sizes, including Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest.

Attacks have led schools to cancel classes or close their operations for several days. Cyber criminals have also stolen sensitive personal information of students and employees, as well as sensitive information about school security systems. School districts have also lost between $50,000 to $1 million per cyberattack, a 2022 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found.

Along with the Government Coordinating Council, the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will provide tailored assessments and cybersecurity training and exercises for K-12 schools this school year. The Federal Bureau of Investigations and the National Guard Bureau are also updating resource guides so state governments and education officials know how to report cybersecurity incidents and can leverage the federal government’s cyber defense capabilities.

Some education technology companies are making commitments to provide free or low-cost cybersecurity training resources to school districts:

The Education Department and CISA also released the K-12 Digital Infrastructure Brief: Defensible & Resilient, which provides recommendations and best practices for identifying, protecting, detecting, responding, and recovering from cyber threats or attacks. And the department released two other briefs that provide best practices for ensuring schools’ digital infrastructure is “future proof” and “interoperable.”

Schools Overlook Simple Ways to Build Trust in School Police and Potentially Boost Safety

Finding out who’s policing the halls of schools is not an easy task because even the most basic information is often buried in the weeds.

Chris Curran, an associate professor of educational research and policy at the University of Florida, found out that transparency was lacking for a study he and a colleague conducted.

The oversight misses an opportunity to inform the public about the officers and, potentially, help build trust and inform debates about equity and school safety, said Curran.

His urging comes as more schools consider adding police following mass shootings in Texas and Tennessee schools.

To assess schools’ transparency about police, the researchers analyzed the websites of a randomly selected sample of 300 Florida public schools in fall 2020. They searched for information about school resource officers, their names, their contact information, and descriptions of their roles.

The researchers then compared that information with data about school police they’d collected through a public-records request the previous year to estimate how many schools with police on campus hadn’t posted information about them on their websites.

What they found: The portion of schools with information about SROs on their websites—about 1in 5—was less than a third of what they expected compared with their statewide data, which suggested between 60 percent and 75 percent of schools had sworn officers on-site.

The schools that mentioned SROs most commonly listed them in staff directories, the researchers found. “In contrast, virtually no schools provided further information on their websites regarding the roles, practices, or job descriptions of the SROs,” the authors wrote.

Whether officers’ names are listed on websites is just one indicator of transparency, Curran said.

Ideally, proponents of school resource officers envision them as an extension of community policing—a model that relies on building relationships to prevent and deter crime. Such a model makes it imperative that families can attach a face and a name to the officers in school hallways, he said.

Auditors Are on the Hunt for Fraud Stemming From the Misuse of COVID-Relief Funding

The federal government is on the lookout for fraudulent spending of COVID-relief funds.

So far, two states and a handful of districts have been the subject of audits and federal watchdog reports that have raised concerns about their ESSER spending.

On the whole, however, districts appear to have spent their federal monies prudently, according to a prominent auditor who’s helped examine dozens of districts nationwide.

That’s in stark contrast to other federal programs like loans for small businesses, where as much as 17 percent of funds appear to have been fraudulently spent, according to a recent report from the Small Business Administration’s inspector general.

Some districts, however, have failed to follow proper procedures for documenting or tracking investments, said Eric Russell, an auditor who currently works with ENJ, an accounting firm that serves school districts and municipalities across the country.

The highest-profile scandal so far is in Oklahoma. The state auditor there recently highlighted $29 million of improperly spent federal COVID-relief dollars.

For the more than $6.5 million that went to families in the form of private school tuition scholarships, the state gave certain private schools preferential treatment to enroll recipients, the audit report says. And $1.7 million meant for parents to buy educational supplies instead paid for ineligible items like entertainment and kitchen tools.

Both of those investments came from a pot of education spending dollars sent to each state’s governor to use at their discretion. Oklahoma received $39 million in total for these funds. The state auditor, Cindy Byrd, has contested the spending of roughly 20 percent of those funds.

In West Virginia, meanwhile, David Roach, the state superintendent of education since 2022, resigned last month amid controversy over improper spending by the Upshur County district. Roach’s deputy in the state education department, Sara Lewis-Stankus, served as superintendent there between 2018 and 2022.

A state-mandated review of the district’s COVID relief spending found hundreds of thousands of dollars that went to ineligible expenses like staff travel and food and beverages.

Departures of Principals Edge Up But Only a Bit

That mass exodus of principals the education field has been poised for hasn’t materialized—at least not yet.

More than 1 in 10 public school principals left the profession between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, new federal data show.

That’s a slight increase from five years prior, the last time the data were collected. But it’s not a sharp departure from longer-term trends, said Julia Merlin, a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics.

Slightly more than 11 percent of principals left the role altogether. That’s an uptick over the 9.8 percent deemed “leavers” in the 2016-17 school year, but it’s in line with trends dating back to 2008-09, when 11.9 percent of principals left the field.

The findings come amid continued concern about stress for school leaders, who have been challenged with restoring teacher morale as they faced years of uncertainty during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I am surprised that the number [of principals who left] isn’t higher,” said Beth Houf, a high school principal in Jefferson City, Mo., and the 2022 Principal of the Year, an honor given by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Principals need support from districts, connections to their peers, and a sense of community with teachers to help them face continued challenges from the pandemic, she said.

Veteran and older principals appeared more likely to leave than others, the NCES analysis found. And schools with high-minority student bodies had the highest percent of principals moving to new schools and the lowest percentage of leaders leaving the role altogether.

While the data don’t show a dramatic spike in departures, policymakers and education groups have warned that states and districts should take action now to ensure they can continue to retain and recruit effective principals.

OK of 1st Religious Charter in Nation Faces Lawsuit

Catching no one off-guard, nine Oklahoma residents and one organization have filed a lawsuit over the state’s approval of the nation’s first religious charter school, a Roman Catholic Church-sponsored virtual academy scheduled to go online in 2024.

The lawsuit, filed in state court, challenges the decision by the state’s virtual charter board to approve the application for the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

The school would provide a Catholic curriculum and adhere to the church’s values and would receive about $2.5 million in state aid.

Its application was approved in June after months of debate and competing legal opinions about whether a religious charter school would violate a state constitutional provision that public schools be operated “free from sectarian control” and a state statute requiring that charter schools be “nonsectarian.”

The suit argues that the school cannot be reconciled with those state law provisions. “Forcing taxpayers to fund a religious school that, as they openly admit will be a place of [evangelization] for one specific religion, is not religious freedom,” said the Rev. Lori Walke, the pastor of the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City and a plaintiff.

State schools chief Ryan Walters, who has supported the religious charter school and is named as a defendant, said the plaintiffs were the ones attacking religious liberty.

Supporters of the religious charter school have argued that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have bolstered their arguments that Oklahoma would violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion if it rejected the application on religious grounds.

The suit, however, focuses on the state’s constitutional and statutory provisions. Plaintiffs’ lawyers also distinguished between the high court’s cases opening up state aid to private religious schools and the Oklahoma religious charter, which involves a form of public education that would take on a religious character in unprecedented ways.

Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Lauraine Langreo, Staff Writer; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; and Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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