Education

Briefly Stated: November 1, 2023

October 31, 2023 8 min read
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Schools Urged to Seek Extensions to Spend Their ESSER Funds

School officials, make haste. Don’t wait to declare that your district needs more time to spend down all the COVID-relief money the federal government bestowed.

Stephen Cornman, a senior survey director for the National Center for Education Statistics, conveyed that message to the Association of School Business Officials International at its annual conference last month.

The U.S. Department of Education hasn’t yet shared details on how districts can ask to extend the spending deadline, which is still more than a year away.

“There’s going to be a template that’s made available. But I would begin that process almost immediately,” Cornman told district’s chief financial officers. “The sooner that you get the extension requests in, the better.”

Districts are racing to commit $122 billion they collectively received in 2021 through the federal American Rescue Plan to eligible expenses by Sept. 30, 2024. The department announced in September that states will be able to apply on behalf of districts for up to 14 additional months beyond January 2025 to spend money on contracts that extend past that deadline for such services as tutoring, mental health, and construction.

The September 2024 deadline for committing the money to particular expenses, however, would remain in place.

Each of the three sets of COVID-relief funds districts have received since 2020 came with two distinct deadlines: one for committing and the other for spending.

Changing the obligation deadline would require an act of Congress—a highly unlikely prospect.

But district leaders and their advocates have been pushing the department for more than a year to be more flexible on spending timelines as they struggle to navigate students’ academic and emotional struggles and a tricky market for securing labor and services.

That flexibility will extend only to contracted services, like construction projects that last for several years, the department has said. Districts won’t be eligible for extensions for one-time expenses, like the purchase of a set of new laptops.

Scholastic Reverses Controversial Decision To Segregate Diverse Books at School Fairs

Scholastic last week backed off its decision to allow schools to exclude a collection of books about LGBTQ+ characters and Black characters when hosting its book fairs.

In a letter to authors and illustrators, the children’s book publisher said it had made a mistake to segregate books about diversity and will not offer a separate collection at book fairs.

“We understand now that the separate nature of the collection has caused confusion and feelings of exclusion,” the company said. “As we reconsider how to make our book fairs available to all kids, we will keep in mind the needs of our educators facing local content restrictions and the children we serve.”

Scholastic initially attributed the optional collection to pending and proposed laws restricting what books students can and can’t read in 30 states.

The reversal of the decision was a step in the right direction, some school librarians and literary experts said.

“Scholastic recognized that, as difficult a bind as this pernicious legislation created, the right answer was not to become an accessory to censorship. Scholastic is an essential source of knowledge and a delight for countless children,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program.

“We are glad to see them champion the freedom to read.”

Royel Johnson, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, said that how Scholastic proceeds will determine its commitment to diverse books.

“In a time where access to Black, Indigenous, People of Color and LGBTQIA+ authors and stories is under constant threat and erasure, it is more important than ever for publishers like Scholastic to be firm on their commitments to DEI and not sway to political pressures,” he said.

Despite Scholastic holding state laws and bills responsible for making the diverse collection optional, only three states had passed legislation that dictate the kinds of books schools can make available to students as of May 2023: Florida, Missouri, and Utah. Still, there have been thousands of challenges to books across the country.

Reading Recovery Sues Ohio for Instituting Ban Against Some of Its Teaching Methods

Ohio lawmakers are so wedded to the “science of reading” that they’ve enshrined it in legislation that dictates not only the content and training the state will fund but also what instructional methods educators cannot use.

That doesn’t sit well with the organization behind the popular Reading Recovery program, leading it to mount one of the first major legal challenges to a wave of recent state legislation aiming to align classroom instruction to the broad base of research on how children learn to read.

The lawsuit against the state concerns an overhaul to reading instruction passed in the state’s budget bill in July. The budget provides funding for evidence-based educator professional development, literacy coaches, and curriculum. It also stipulates that by the 2024-25 school year, all schools must use reading programs that have been approved by the state, and no district can adopt any materials that use a method known as three-cueing.

That approach instructs students to rely on many sources of information, rather than just the letters on the page, to figure out how to read words. Researchers say cueing can discourage children from applying their phonics knowledge, hampering their ability to become strong readers.

The lawsuit alleges that the budget bill violates the Ohio constitution, which says a bill can only be about one subject—and that it infringes on the state board of education’s power to set education policy. It also argues that the law doesn’t “articulate a clear standard for assessing what teaching models or methods might be categorized under the ‘three cueing’ approach,” rendering it “unconstitutionally vague.”

Billy Molasso, the executive director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, argues that banning cueing is government overreach. “Educators have long debated how best to reach students, but when an educational practice has scientific evidence supporting it, a legislative enactment that prohibits the practice suggests motives entirely outside of educational best practices.”

The program has been found to improve students’ reading ability in the short term but not in the long term.

The lawsuit notes that Ohio is a key market for Reading Recovery and underscores how the ban would hurt its bottom line.

FCC OKs E-Rate Funding For Wi-Fi on School Buses

Soon, Wi-Fi could be coming to a school bus in your district.

Starting next year, schools will be allowed to use federal E-rate funding to pay for school bus Wi-Fi, under a change approved last month by the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, supported the measure along with the two other Democrats on the five-person commission. Both Republicans on the panel voted against it.

During the debate over the change, Rosenworcel recalled a recent visit to a community in rural Vermont where some students commute an hour each way to school. The district had outfitted its buses with Wi-Fi so that students could use the time to study.

Before the district connected its buses, one student without internet at home would rush to the library just before school ended and print out her assignments, web pages for research, anything she might need for homework, a librarian told Rosenworcel.

The student “printed stacks of paper day after day because she had no broadband at home,” Rosenworcel said. “Let’s be clear. This is a kid with extraordinary grit. But it shouldn’t be this hard.”

But Republicans on the commission argued that the change is unnecessary and goes against Congress’ intent when it created the E-rate program explicitly to connect classrooms—not other types of learning spaces. What’s more, the change is “wasteful and unlikely to benefit students and teachers,” said Nathan Simington.

“Anyone who’s ever been in a school bus should have a healthy skepticism that most children will, in fact, sit quietly and do homework on their laptops, instead of socializing with the friends on the bus and browsing social media on their phones,” he said.

Currently, the E-rate program has a spending cap of $4.4 billion, but it has been allocating far less than that. Last year, the program doled out about $2.5 billion, and the year before that, it gave out a little less than $2.1 billion.

‘Science of Reading’ Gets Moms for Liberty Nod

The Oklahoma state department of education recently announced that it would be signing onto a controversial group’s new literacy effort—joining forces with Moms for Liberty, the conservative political organization whose local chapters have fought to challenge or remove books in districts across the country.

The move promises to further complicate the thorny political landscape of the “science of reading” movement, by linking what has been a bipartisan—if sometimes uneasy—movement nationwide for improved instruction in foundational literacy to an explicitly political group.

Moms for Liberty has pushed to remove books and lessons from schools that focus on LGBTQ+ rights or the continuing legacy of racial discrimination. The group also promotes what co-founder Tiffany Justice calls a “back to basics approach” to literacy instruction.

Many states and districts in both red and blue states have recently revamped their approaches to early-reading instruction in efforts to more closely align teaching practices with the available evidence base on how young children learn to read.

Still, several components of the movement—explicit phonics instruction and a core foundation of knowledge—have long been associated with conservative political priorities, in part because they often come with curricular and instructional mandates, said Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Moms for Liberty has argued that a focus on diverse books in the classroom has crowded out basic skills as a priority.

But pitting basic skills against culturally responsive practices is a false dichotomy, say some advocates for evidence-based reading instruction.

Many science of reading advocates also support the idea of a knowledge-building curriculum—using a series of materials that work together to systematically introduce students to certain topics.

For some proponents of knowledge-building curricula, this means “back to the canon,” said Rachael Gabriel, a professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Eesha Pendharkar, Staff Writer; and Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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