Education

Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024

March 19, 2024 8 min read
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Biden Budget Seeks Smaller Increases for Education Aid

Think of it more like a wish list than a budget since Republicans aren’t likely to embrace President Joe Biden’s budget proposal for fiscal 2025.

Unveiled last week, the proposed budget would secure more money for high-need schools and students with disabilities and make free preschool universally available to 4-year-olds. It includes an $82 billion request for the U.S. Department of Education.

Release of the document came days after Biden’s State of the Union address, in which he called for pay raises for teachers and expanded access to preschool, tutoring, summer learning, and career and technical education.

Though there’s virtually no chance the proposal will take effect as is, with the GOP controlling one chamber of Congress and seeking domestic spending cuts, Biden’s budget signals his priorities as he seeks reelection in November.

The budget proposes an increase of $3.9 billion over the 2023 budget for the Education Department and a $2.8 billion bump above projected spending for 2024, for which Congress hasn’t passed a final budget.

In past years, Biden’s budget proposals have included requests for much larger increases in education funding than this year’s request. The smaller increase is the result of a law that allowed Congress to avoid a government shutdown last spring.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the proposed spending plan should be viewed in context. Last year, Republicans proposed a budget that would have cut funding for Title I, which goes to schools in low-income areas, by 80 percent, and former President Donald Trump proposed reductions to education spending each year of his term.

Predictably, Biden’s budget proposal earned praise from teachers’ union leaders and criticism from Republicans in Congress.

“President Joe Biden’s budget shows that he values the voice of parents and educators and that his vision for this country is one where all students … are always a top priority,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

But Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House’s Education and the Workforce Committee, said it “will make the nation keel over from shouldering more unsustainable and irresponsible debt.”

Legal Settlement Spells Out What’s Permissible Under Florida’s Contested ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law

Is it clear now?

Educators trying to figure out what is permissible under Florida’s law banning instruction on topics of sexual orientation and gender identity have finally gotten official answers as the result of a lawsuit settled last week.

What is allowed under the settlement includes: Teachers and students can discuss their own LGBTQ+ identities and families, safe space stickers can stay up in classrooms, students can participate in extracurricular activities such as Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, and they can wear clothing inconsistent with “students’ gender assigned at birth.”

Advocacy organizations and families filed the lawsuit against the state education department and board of education two years ago challenging the constitutionality of the Parental Rights in Education Act, or the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

It prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in grades K-3 or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The state last year extended the ban to high school. Dozens of states have followed suit with similar legislative efforts.

“For nearly two years, Florida’s notorious ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law has spawned a disturbing wave of fear, anxiety, and confusion,” said lead counsel for the plaintiffs Roberta Kaplan. “By providing much-needed clarity, this settlement represents a major victory for the many thousands of LGBTQ+ students, teachers, parents, and their allies throughout Florida.”

The governor’s office, in a statement, also claimed victory: “Thanks to the leadership of Governor [Ron] DeSantis, the law remains in effect, and children will be protected from radical gender and sexual ideology in the classroom.”

While the law specifically refers to bans on “instruction” on sexual orientation and gender identity, educators have been decrying its ambiguity over what is considered instruction and spoke of a resulting chilling effect across the state.

The agreement resolves any further proceedings in the lawsuit.

With Federal Pandemic Aid Coming to an End, Employee Layoffs Are Beginning to Mount

The fiscal cliff is right around the next bend.

Take the Fort Worth, Texas, district, for example. Amid an expected $44 million budget deficit largely attributed to the end of federal COVID-relief funds, its school board last month approved cutting 133 jobs; 129 of them subsidized by the pandemic aid.

It is one of many districts that has come face to face with a stark reality: Schools won’t have enough money next year for everything they’re doing now, and there will be workforce reductions.

In Howard County, Md., district leaders are considering eliminating 348 positions to offset a $103 million budget expected shortfall. The total budget is expected to be around $1.1 billion.

The story is similar in districts from Pasadena, Calif., to Little Rock, Ark., to Buffalo, N.Y.

For the past four years, ESSER funds have buoyed budgets and protected districts from the fiscal impacts of declining student enrollment, rising costs of employee salaries and benefits, and widespread inflation.

Even as ESSER funds dry up, some states are also scaling back their own K-12 education investments. But academic recovery and student mental health needs continue to pose major challenges—and costs.

For most districts that have announced or are considering layoffs, the budget crunch isn’t coming as a surprise. School finance experts have warned ever since Congress approved pandemic-relief aid in 2020 and 2021 that districts could face a funding cliff if they didn’t prepare for the end of the grant period.

In particular, finance experts advised districts against using the majority of funds for recurring expenses like staff salaries. Some districts forged ahead anyway, either planning to cut staff once ESSER funds ran out or hoping to find alternative funding sources to keep valuable staff on the payroll past 2024.

Some districts, like the Mansfield schools in Texas, have managed to craft budgets for next school year that won’t cost anyone their job. But even there, stability may not last, said Michele Trongaard, the district’s associate superintendent for business and finance. “We’re right on the cusp” of needing to lay people off, she said. “Decisions don’t have to be made today, but we do need to have conversations.”

First Batch of FAFSA Data Sent to Nation’s Colleges

At last, the waiting may be over. After months of delays and technical hiccups, some colleges and universities have started to receive federal data they need to put together financial-aid offers for incoming students.

The U.S. Department of Education says it sent a batch of student records to “a few dozen schools” on March 10 and is making final updates before sending out more. Which schools, it didn’t say.

The delay has cut into the time schools usually have to assemble financial-aid packages before the typical May 1 deadline for students to commit to a university. Many colleges have extended enrollment deadlines as they wait on the federal government, leaving families wondering how much help they will get with college tuition.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid overhaul delayed the form’s usual rollout from October to late December. The department then soft-launched the new version to address lingering bugs in the system, but many families reported difficulties accessing the form.

The delays have had cascading impacts across higher education. FAFSA information is used to award state and federal education grants, and schools use it to assemble financial-aid packages for prospective students. In the meantime, families often have only a murky idea of how much they would need to pay, which can be a dealbreaker when choosing colleges.

Advocates fear the holdup will deter some students from pursuing higher education at all, especially those already on the fence.

Repeated delays have become a blemish for the Biden administration, which has blamed Congress for rejecting requests for more money to overhaul information systems and update the decades-old application process.

Republicans in Congress say the Government Accountability Office has launched an investigation into the administration’s handling of the overhaul.

Most Teens Feel Happy When They’re Phone-Free

Contrary to what one may infer from observation, nearly three-quarters of teenagers say they feel happy or peaceful when they don’t have their phones with them. Yet, they use the devices freely anyway.

In a new report published last week, the Pew Research Center found that despite the positive associations with going phone-free, most teens have not limited their phone or social media use.

The survey comes as policymakers and children’s advocates are growing increasingly concerned with teens’ relationships with their phones and social media.

Last fall, dozens of states, including California and New York, sued Instagram and Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc. for harming young people and contributing to the youth mental health crisis by knowingly and deliberately designing features that addict children. In January, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X, and other social media companies went before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about their platforms’ harms to young people. And the House passed legislation last week that could lead to an out-and-out ban on TikTok.

Despite the increasing concerns, most teens say smartphones make it easier to be creative and pursue hobbies, while 45 percent said it helps them do well in school. Most said the benefits of having a smartphone outweigh the harms for people their age. Nearly all teens (95 percent) have access to a smartphone, according to Pew.

The poll was conducted Sept. 26-Oct. 23, 2023, among a sample of 1,453 pairs of teens with one parent.

About half of parents say they limit the amount of time their child can be on their phone, while a similar share don’t.

And 42 percent of teens say smartphones make learning good social skills harder, while 30 percent said it makes it easier.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Ileana Najarro, Staff Writer; Caitlynn Peetz, Staff Writer; and Libby Stanford, Reporter contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2024 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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