Education

Briefly Stated: March 13, 2024

March 12, 2024 9 min read
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Federal Probe Opens Following the Death of Nonbinary Student

The U.S. Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into an Oklahoma district following the death of a 16-year-old nonbinary student the day after a fight in a school restroom.

The Feb. 8 death of Nex Benedict has sparked protests around the country about the treatment of LGBTQ+ students, state laws related to the rights of transgender students, and restrictions on how educators can discuss race and sexuality.

Benedict told police three students physically attacked them in an Owasso High School girls’ restroom after mocking the way they dressed. Police have said that preliminary information from a medical examiner showed Benedict “did not die as a result of trauma,” but autopsy results have not been released.

The federal investigation into the Owasso, Okla., district will determine whether it met its obligations under three federal civil rights laws, including Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding. Districts can lose that funding if fault is found and they do not correct detected areas of noncompliance.

“We believe that Nex’s death is the natural consequence of a growing wave of hatred against LGBTQ+ people,” Kelley Robinson, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote in a Feb. 21 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

She highlighted states’ legislative efforts “focused on demonizing transgender and gender-expansive youth specifically,” including an Oklahoma law that prohibits transgender students from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

“The district is committed to cooperating with federal officials and believes the complaint submitted by [the Human Rights Campaign] is not supported by the facts and is without merit,” a district spokesman said.

The fight Benedict was involved in ended in less than two minutes after fellow students and a staff member intervened, the district said in a Feb. 20 statement. Students walked “under their own power” to the school nurse’s office. An ambulance was not deemed necessary, but parents of one student took them to the hospital for evaluation, the statement said, presumably Benedict.

Oklahoma leaders have repeatedly challenged the Biden administration’s interpretation of civil rights laws, including Title IX.

High Court Declines Case on Admissions Policy to Selective School Aiming to Boost Diversity

A selective Virginia high school’s admissions policy will stand, an action accomplished by the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case out of Virginia.

The 2020 admissions plan for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was facially race-neutral but was adopted by the Fairfax County school district to boost racial diversity in the student body.

A group advocating for Asian American students went to the high court in hopes of overturning a federal appeals court decision upholding the policy on the basis that there was no illegal racially disparate impact on the Asian American students. Low-income Asian American students, in fact, had experienced increased admissions under it, the appeals court had found.

The plan was challenged as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Its challengers argued that the district aimed to increase white and minority enrollment at the school, which before the new plan had an enrollment that was more than 70 percent Asian American.

“The board did away with the long-standing admissions exams and replaced them with a ‘holistic’ evaluation, complete with a middle school quota and a points system that rewarded nonacademic ‘experience factors,’” the challengers said in their Supreme Court brief, noting that Asian American enrollment fell to 54 percent under the new plan.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, in its appeal to the Supreme Court, noted there are similar cases challenging magnet school admissions policies in Boston, New York City, and Montgomery County, Md., involving the racial balancing of enrollments to the detriment of Asian American students.

In its response brief, Fairfax County said that every applicant to the high school is evaluated on an individual basis, and the new admissions policy “was not designed to achieve any sort of aggregate racial balance.” There was no evidence supporting the challengers’ “reckless charge that the [school] board changed TJ’s admissions policy for the purpose of discriminating against Asian Americans,” the board’s brief said.

Next NAEP to Take Deeper Look at Connection Between Poverty and Student Achievement

The next “nation’s report card” will take a more nuanced look than previous assessments ever have at how students’ socioeconomic status affects their academic achievement.

The 2024 National Assessment of Educational Progress will introduce a new composite measure of student income that takes into account broader family and school resources.

It will incorporate student eligibility for school meals and other federal safety-net programs; total share of students eligible for income-related programs at a school; number of printed books in a student’s home; and, for grades 8 and 12, the education level of either parent.

The index allows test scores to be disaggregated for high-, middle-, and low-income students.

“What is provided with NAEP is this more nuanced variable ... that you can use to look at relationships between student achievement and students of different socioeconomic backgrounds state by state,” said Dan McGrath of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP.

Because the index uses data that NAEP already collects, researchers and policymakers also will be able to retroactively apply the new poverty measures to some 20 years of student data.

For example, one American Institutes for Research study used a similar index to analyze achievement gap trends between the highest- and lowest-income students from 2003 to 2017. The index data showed more of the poorest 20 percent of 8th graders in each state reached “basic” and “proficient” math achievement over that time, but 14 states saw widening achievement gaps between high- and low-income students.

Using the poverty index and English-language proficiency alone explained all the achievement gaps between white and Hispanic students and most of the gaps between white and Black students, said Markus Broer, a managing researcher at AIR and the director of the poverty index project for NAEP.

NAEP traditionally has analyzed test scores based on a student’s eligibility for federal free or reduced-price meals. But more schools with high concentrations of low-income students are now permitted to offer free lunches schoolwide, diluting the proxy for poverty.

Chicago Moves Ahead With Plan to Scrap SROs

While other districts are backtracking, Chicago is moving forward with plans to pull school resource officers from buildings.

The board of education is proceeding with plans to terminate its $10.3 million school resource officer program and order schools to remove officers before the coming school year starts.

The program follows a commitment made nearly four years ago to provide a comprehensive plan for schools using resource officers to “phase out their use.” The Whole School Safety Program instructs the Chicago district to devise a plan to implement an alternative safety system “that prioritizes [students’] physical and social-emotional well-being, learning, and transformation.”

Opponents of SROs say the controversial program leads to higher rates of discrimination against students of color. Data on school-based arrests released by the district in 2020 showed the overwhelming majority—73 percent—involved Black students, who made up 36 percent of all students.

Following racial-justice protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, groups of Chicago students demanded the district nullify its then-$33 million resource officer contract with the police department. Instead, the district cut the contract in half and punted the issue to Local School Councils—composed of principals, staff, parents, community members, and student representatives—to vote on the issue.

Over the last decade, the number of resource officers has dwindled to 57 across 39 schools this school year, down from 166 officers assigned to 74 high schools in the 2012-13 school year.

Schools that opted to remove SROs have received trade-in funds to support alternative strategies such as hiring social-work and restorative-justice coordinators as well as security guards. Officials say the district will provide trade-in funds for the remaining 39 participating schools if the program ends.

Ill. Public School Students Outperform Voucher Peers

Elementary students who received scholarships through Illinois’ controversial Invest in Kids tax-credit program lagged in reading and math proficiency on state standardized tests compared with public school students, a new report finds.

Conducted by the nonprofit research agency WestEd, the 14-month study contrasts the Illinois Assessment of Readiness reading and math scores of scholarship recipients in grades 3-8, with their public school peers. In 2022 and 2023, Invest in Kids recipients fared worse in both subjects.

At the high school level, researchers juxtaposed students’ SAT performance, finding public school students performed slightly lower in reading and slightly higher in math than scholarship recipients.

The report comes in the wake of fierce debate over the merits of continuing the program past its Dec. 31 end date. Lawmakers allowed the program to sunset—bucking a national trend that’s seen several states expand or create private school choice programs in recent years.

Invest in Kids supporters argue the program gives students who couldn’t otherwise access private schools a shot at a better education. Opponents say it is a diversion of tax dollars to bolster theological-based programs that exclude certain students.

The WestEd study also aims to assess “how private schools are organized to support students’ success.” Faith-based schools comprise the vast majority of schools that received Invest in Kids funds. Just over 8 percent of teachers surveyed said they worked at an independent private school without a religious affiliation.

In some schools, researchers said teachers see prayer as a way to connect with students and address disruptive behavior, while principals stressed the need for parents to align with their school’s mission and values. Participants mostly praised administrators and teachers for cultivating trusting school environments that welcome parent involvement and feel safe, according to the study. However, several people shared concerns that their schools could not meet diverse learners’ needs.

Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; Tribune News Service; and Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2024 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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