Education

Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021

November 16, 2021 8 min read
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States’ Spending on K-12 Education Still Inequitable

Poor schools in nearly half the states get short shrift when it comes to per-student funding. That’s the case even though there’s abundant evidence that high-poverty schools benefit from more-robust investment.

So says a new analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data that also shows wide disparities in how school funding is distributed. On average, schools spend roughly $15,000 per student. But within states, average funding ranges from about $9,700 per student in Arizona to roughly $26,700 in New York. That’s a difference of some $17,000 per student.

Those figures are among the findings in the annual “Making the Grade” report published late last month by the Education Law Center.

They highlight the long-standing reality of school funding: Per-student spending varies widely, depending on property values, tax revenues, budgetary constraints, and political conditions. A highly complex and chaotic school finance system leaves thousands of schools with inadequate resources and millions of students with insufficient opportunities to learn.

Schools in more than half the states get fewer dollars per student than the national average—in 12 of them, more than $3,000 below the national average.

All these 2019 figures are adjusted for regional differences and omit federal funds, which make up just 8 percent of the nation’s K-12 education investment.

The report’s authors, Danielle Farrie and David Sciarra, argue that these massive disparities reinforce the need for more federal support for the nation’s public school system. Ideally, they write, expanded federal funding would spur states to ramp up their own investment, rather than giving them cover to make cuts.

Several states, including Tennessee and Vermont, are in the process of revamping their funding formulas. In several others, legal challenges to school funding formulas aim to improve public school offerings and address historical inequities.

The report assigns states a grade of A through F in three areas: funding level, funding distribution, and funding effort.

Wyoming is the only state to receive an A in all three metrics. Only one other state, Alaska, received A and B grades.

Florida and Nevada got F’s on all three measures, while Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah got F’s in two out of three.

Texas Gov. Steps Up Crusade to Banish Books Deemed ‘Pornographic’

“I know it when I see it.” That’s the way the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously described pornography in a 1964 case.

Gov. Greg Abbott apparently is following his lead. In letters to Texas school groups and libraries this month, he demands ridding schools and libraries of “pornography” without defining that term or “obscene content.” The books he cites deal with LGBTQ issues—one involving domestic abuse.

Now, he’s taking it a step further. Last week, the Republican announced a criminal probe into the matter.

“The fact that pornographic material that serves no educational purpose has been made available to students in Texas public schools is a clear violation of the law,” he wrote, directing the Texas Education Agency to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography” to minors and to refer cases for prosecution.

Abbott also charged that the Texas Association of School Boards had abdicated its responsibility because the organization hadn’t followed up on his earlier directive to “shield children from pornography and other inappropriate content.”

The governor’s actions follow on the heels of state lawmakers banning schools from teaching critical race theory, even though the decades-old academic theory is not taught in any public school. In addition to a call to remove books deemed pornographic, Texas conservatives have moved to ban books that deal with race and gender.

One state representative has gone as far as calling on districts to provide information on more than 800 books about such topics as race and racism, sex and sexuality, abortion, and LGBTQ rights. The Austin and Dallas districts have said they won’t respond.

Opponents of the book challenges say their real intent is to excise stories by and about minorities and those who are LGBTQ. Richard Price, a political science professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and the author of the Adventures in Censorship blog, said the attacks amount to a “war on books.” As some schools have caved to such challenges, Price said, the appetite has only grown for more.

More State Affiliates Are Distancing Themselves From NSBA Over Federal Request to Stem Violence

Montana’s out. So’s South Carolina. They’re saying so long to the National School Boards Association. And in Arizona, Republican activists have launched a so-called “nonpartisan” alternative school board association.

Board members from Montana and South Carolina and the founders of the alternative association claim they’ve long had issues with the national organization and its respective state affiliates. But the breaking point appears to be the NSBA’s request to President Joe Biden for federal law-enforcement assistance to deal with threats of violence and intimidation over COVID-19 requirements at schools. It later apologized for the original request.

Montana School Boards Association officials say they are leaving the NSBA because it has lost its focus in supporting local school boards offering professional development and advocating quality education.

The Montana group plans to work with other state associations to create a new national organization.

In South Carolina, meanwhile, leaders of that state affiliate said they were withdrawing their membership at the request of 36 GOP House members and Gov. Henry McMaster, who criticized the national group for comparing parents upset over mask mandates to domestic terrorists.

What Republicans in Arizona have come up with is the Arizona Coalition of School Board Members, headed by such activists as the first vice chair and treasurer of the Republican Party of Arizona and the daughter of the chairwoman.

Some parents and conservative groups have voiced opposition to the Arizona School Boards Association in recent years because of its position on issues like Empowerment Scholarship Accounts and, more recently, critical race theory and the handling of COVID-19.

For $25, inaugural members—who can be school board members, parents, community members, school board candidates, teachers, or administrators—can join the coalition.

The coalition describes itself as a “nonpartisan” advocacy group, but the makeup of the organization’s board suggests its mission is political. Its leadership is made up of GOP officials and those pushing conservative agendas.

Cost Remains No. 1 Reason Students Lack Home Internet

They just can’t afford it. That’s the bottom line for the families of millions of students who don’t have home-internet access.

Almost two-thirds of offline households have access to home broadband connections in their areas but can’t cover the cost, according to “No Home Left Offline,” a report released last week by EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that champions greater broadband access in schools and homes.

With the onslaught of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic last year, home-internet connectivity for students went from an important service to have to something that could make or break their academic success.

EducationSuperHighway’s new goal is closing “the digital divide for the 18 million households that have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect,” Evan Marwell, the founder and CEO of the organization, writes. That includes helping low-income families take advantage of federal broadband affordability programs at their disposal. As few as 17 percent of people eligible for those programs have enrolled, the report says.

That’s partly because of lack of awareness. Only 25 percent of lower-income people had even heard of a new federal emergency broadband benefit created in response to the pandemic, according to a national survey cited in the report.

Many offline families are also worried about sharing personal information through the sign-up process or aren’t convinced that the program will actually cover their internet costs.

And signing up for the program can be daunting, particularly when it comes to producing documents to verify income. The nonprofit is planning to work with school districts to find families with school-age children who are unconnected and help them enroll in programs that cover home-internet-access costs.

Noted Marwell: “Internet access is no longer a luxury.”

Lawmakers Dispute Need to Vaccinate Children 5-11

Who should you believe—medical experts or legislators—when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine?

Louisiana lawmakers seem to be banking on the latter. Despite the advice of medical experts, 14 Republican House members sent a letter to state schools chief Cade Brumley questioning the need for children ages 5 to 11 to get the vaccine in what could be the opening salvo in a new round of controversy.

“The likelihood of children of this age group with no comorbidities to survive from COVID is 99.9973 percent,” the letter, dated Nov. 1, said. “Their immune system is more robust. The number-one risk factor for COVID is age.”

But Dr. Joseph Bocchini, the vice president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he would strongly recommend that eligible children get the vaccine.

“And I want to first correct the misunderstanding that this is not a serious disease for young children,” said Bocchini, who is also a professor of pediatrics at Tulane University.

He said 6.2 million children have been infected with COVID, and more than 700 have died, including 170 ages 5 to 11.

“We have ample evidence that this is a vaccine-preventable disease,” Bocchini said.

The letter is signed by a group of GOP lawmakers who have criticized pandemic-related mitigation measures for months.

“We would note COVID, like influenza, is not a vaccine-preventable disease, and according to (state law), it should not be placed on the list of required immunizations for students,” the letter says.

Gov. John Bel Edwards last week lifted the state’s indoor face-mask mandate amid declining numbers of coronavirus cases.

The Democrat, however, kept the directive in place in school districts that opt to allow their children to remain in classrooms if they are exposed to the virus.

The CDC recommends that exposed students be quarantined for at least seven days.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; and Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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