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Briefly Stated: September 21, 2022

September 20, 2022 9 min read
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District Leaders’ Plea: Extend Our Deadline to Spend COVID Aid

Happy they got that COVID-relief money? District leaders sure are. But they’re already planning to cut those very academic-recovery programs the American Rescue Plan underwrote once the aid runs out.

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, culled that from a survey it undertook in July in which 48 percent of district leaders said the December 2024 deadline to spend the funds has led them to identify which programs are going to be axed once it hits.

For example, 57 percent plan to shelve summer learning and enrichment programs, and 53 percent will let contracts with specialized staff like social workers, reading interventionists, and school counselors expire.

Such plans make a clear case for extending the spending deadline, said Sasha Pudelski, AASA’s advocacy director. The association sent a letter on Aug. 29, signed by 683 superintendents from 47 states, to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona asking for guidance on whether and how districts can gain more flexibility for spending the money.

Currently, they have until September 2024 to budget the $130 billion in federal funds, but they can take until December of that year to spend the money.

Extending that deadline would take an act of Congress. Still, in a May 13 letter to AASA, Cardona indicated that the Department of Education might grant spending-extension requests for up to 18 months past the September deadline in situations where districts would need to commit to a contract that requires payment beyond December 2024. Those extensions would be only for extenuating circumstances.

The AASA on July 22 requested that the department confirm its plans to grant spending extensions and the requirements for those decisions. Since sending that letter, it has been “radio silence,” prompting AASA to send the follow-up letter on Aug. 29, Pudelski said.

In its letter, the group specifically asks the Education Department to provide guidance “as far in advance as possible on whether we can have additional time to liquidate funds, the circumstances under which it will be permissible, and the process for receiving approval.”

Without receiving that guidance in a reasonable time frame, the letter says, districts will not be able to rely on extensions when budgeting the money.

Pensions Eat Up a Big Chunk of Payrolls, Affecting Instructional Quality, Salaries, and Filling Vacancies

A district’s budget may look healthy, but looks can, indeed, be deceiving. Take the case of pensions. In at least some states and school systems, a third of the payroll is earmarked for them, concludes a new analysis from Moody’s Investors Service.

In Utah and Louisiana—as well as New York City and Chicago, which have their own pension plans—districts are spending about 30 cents on every dollar of payroll on pensions. In another 19 states, districts have to foot at least 15 cents on every dollar.

Those layouts don’t directly have much to do with the instructional quality students receive, but indirectly, they have a lot of impact. Cash going into pension systems generally means it’s not going toward building improvements, teacher pay, learning materials, or programs.

That doesn’t mean teachers don’t deserve a generous retirement. Over the years, though, analysts have questioned whether the way the systems are structured serves the current teacher population well.

States sometimes step in to help ease the pension burden when costs approach the 30 percent threshold, pointed out Thomas Aaron, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, who co-wrote the analysis.

As tempting as it may be to think that it’s a good deal for districts, have another think. What that usually means is that states just send proportionally less general education aid through.

Most public-pension systems themselves are undernourished, at least to some degree, according to the Equable Institute, which works to make public sector plans more sustainable. Nationwide, it recently reported, the plans are about 85 percent funded—thanks largely to last year’s bull market—a figure that will almost certainly drop this year.

As for those districts looking to bolster pay to find and hire good talent and use perks to keep teachers, there’s a separate price to be paid. Raising teacher salaries ultimately increases pension obligations.

“Telling [districts] not to raise teacher pay has consequences for them in terms of competitiveness, or teachers leaving, or malcontent,” said Max Marchitello, a consultant on school finance and teacher pension plans. “It’s not politically palatable.”

How Bad Is the Teacher Shortage? Tens of Thousands of Students Are Being Taught by Uncertified Teachers

How bad is the teacher shortage, really?

Two new studies, both published last month by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, attempt to uncover concrete information about teacher shortages and turnover rates during the pandemic. Both teams of researchers ran into considerable limitations that make it impossible to collect real-time, comprehensive data to quantify the extent of a national shortage.

What that all means, they say, is that states, districts, and policymakers need granular data to help them tailor solutions—but right now often don’t have access to it.

“Without understanding with detailed data the nature of the problem, we may try to solve it with solutions that are inappropriate for the way that shortages are playing out,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown and an author of one of the papers.

After scouring numerous sources, researchers from Kansas State University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign estimate there are more than 36,500 teacher vacancies in the nation and more than 163,500 positions filled by teachers who aren’t fully certified or are uncertified in the subject area they’re teaching.

The estimates are conservative because the researchers weren’t able to collect comprehensive information for 13 states, including California and New York. Some of the data are dated.

The analysis also shows that shortages are not uniform across the United States. States in the South had much higher vacancy rates than states in the Northeast, for example.

To see whether teacher turnover increased during the pandemic, University of Pittsburgh and Brown researchers analyzed several national and state data sets—again with limitations.

They found that turnover decreased on average in summer 2020. Data for the following summer were more limited, but in the seven states that reported last year’s numbers, turnover increased modestly, returning to pre-pandemic levels.

To try to ameliorate the shortages, the Biden administration late last month unveiled a three-point plan: partner with recruitment firms to find new potential applicants, subsidize other prospective teachers’ training, and pay them more so they’ll stay.

SEL Coalition to Fight Back Against Factional Attacks

Supporters of social-emotional learning are taking the offensive to untangle the teaching of such skills as empathy and resilience from the polarization surrounding lessons on racism, sexuality, and even American history.

Twenty organizations have formed the coalition Leading With SEL, aimed at squelching misinformation about the practice. Among the groups: AASA; the School Superintendents Association; the American School Counselor Association; the National PTA; and the Education Trust.

“Over the past year, we have seen multiple attempts to turn education [including] social and emotional learning into a political wedge issue for the upcoming election,” said Justina Schlund, the senior director of content and field learning at Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. “I think there is a lot of false characterization going on about social-emotional learning. And so, we’re working to clear some of that up.”

SEL generally refers to helping students control their emotions, empathize with others, set goals, be persistent, and think creatively.

The coalition will provide parents and educators with resources for communicating more effectively about SEL and its goals, Schlund said. And it is working to elevate the voices of parents who it believes are representative of how the majority of families feel about SEL, a sentiment borne out by a recent National PTA survey.

But another report suggests SEL may have a branding problem.

The lion’s share of Democratic and Republican parents agreed that in order for students to reach their full academic potential, their social-emotional needs must be met, according to a survey commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But the name—social-emotional learning—ranked dead last on a list of 12 possible labels for these kinds of lessons. The favorite: “Life skills.”

Md. District’s Trans Policy Doesn’t Flout Parent Rights

Transgender and nonbinary students in the Montgomery County, Md., school system can breathe a little easier now that a federal judge has ruled that the district’s policy on how they’re treated does not violate parental rights.

U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm last month tossed out a lawsuit by parents claiming the district’s guidelines violated their constitutional rights as parents. In his opinion, Grimm validated both the need for the guidelines and the way they are framed.

“The guidelines do not aim to exclude parents, but rather anticipate and encourage family involvement in establishing a gender-support plan,” Grimm wrote. “[They] serve primarily as a means of creating a support system and providing counseling to ensure that transgender children feel safe and well at school.”

The ruling marks the first of its kind. It comes as parents across the country have filed at least a half-dozen lawsuits challenging school district guidelines or gender-support plans. The guidelines generally permit students to change their pronouns, gender presentation, or names if they’re trans, gender nonconforming, or nonbinary, and they prohibit school staff from revealing students’ identities to parents without the students’ consent.

In the lawsuit, the Montgomery County parents had contended that the district’s policy was “expressly designed to circumvent parental involvement in a pivotal decision affecting” their children’s “care, health education, and future.” They further argued that it advises school personnel to evaluate minor children about sexual matters, allows the children to transition to a different gender identity at school without parental notice or consent, and requires school staff to enable the transition.

The guidelines direct all staff members to respect students’ gender identities and pronouns, protect their privacy in terms of disclosing their pronouns and identities to other students and their families, and support them if the student doesn’t feel safe at home. They also require all trans and nonbinary students to be treated on a case-by-case basis and the student’s individualized needs and safety be taken into account.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Eesha Pendharkar, Staff Writer; Stephen Sawchuk, Assistant Managing Editor; Libby Stanford, Reporter; and Madeline Will, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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