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February 25, 2020 7 min read
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New Federal Formula Aimed at Rural Schools Leaves Some Behind

A recent change in U.S. Department of Education rules about a long-standing program aimed at helping rural schools probably leaves them feeling like they’ve been sucker punched again.

The department reinterpreted how to distribute funds for the Rural Education Achievement Program. Instead of basing funding levels on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard proxy for being poor, it is now basing funding on U.S. Census Bureau data on families in poverty, which doesn’t necessarily capture the same set of families.

The result: Hundreds of districts will receive significantly less funding this year, says AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

In Maine alone, more than 100 schools will lose funding, according to a letter U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sent to the department. “If this decision is not reversed,” she wrote, “the department risks denying thousands of students living in rural Maine the chance to reach their full potentials.”

Congress created the REAP fund in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act to help rural districts that can’t compete for federal grants because they don’t have the staff to fill out the mounds of required paperwork. But an effort to preserve the funding formula in the Every Child Succeeds Act failed. The criteria currently says the funds should be distributed based on “the percentage of children from families with incomes below the poverty line.”

Sasha Pudelski, an advocacy director for AASA, questioned why the department made the change.

“This has been the practice up until this year, and now they’re saying, ‘Sorry, our hands are tied, we can’t do this anymore,’ ” Pudelski said. “Why would they magically overturn 20 years of precedent here in distributing funding to states?”

A spokeswoman for the department, however, says the formula has been in place for more than a decade, and the department is reviewing Collins’ concerns. “We take seriously our commitment to ensuring every student is counted and appropriately supported,” she said.

Teachers in Need, Schools in Need

A new analysis of DonorsChoose records shows rising crowdfunding requests, and the data reflect a deep divide between poor and more-affluent schools. Teachers in poor schools, for instance, are more likely to seek help related to warmth, care, and hunger—the fastest-growing category overall.

The analysis examines 1.8 million teacher requests over nearly a decade. During that stretch, requests grew at a compound rate of 23 percent annually.

Appeals Court Backs Transgender ‘Safety’ Plan

Transgender rights has notched another victory—this time via a federal appellate court ruling that upholds an Oregon district’s policy allowing transgender students to use restrooms, locker rooms, and showers that match their gender identity.

In backing the district’s “student-safety plan,” the court rejected multiple legal theories that such a policy violates Title IX or the privacy, parental, or religious rights of those students and parents who object.

“We ... hold that a policy that treats all students equally does not discriminate based on sex in violation of Title IX, and that the normal use of privacy facilities does not constitute actionable sexual harassment under Title IX just because a person is transgender,” says a decision this month by a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

“We hold further that the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide a fundamental parental right to determine the bathroom policies of the public schools to which parents may send their children,” the court says in its decision.

When the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last fall in a pending case about the rights of gay and transgender workers, several justices seemed keenly interested in how their ruling might affect the debate over the use of school restrooms by transgender students.

But the 9th Circuit’s decision was consistent with a recent wave of federal district and appeals court rulings that have found in favor of transgender-student rights and against privacy arguments raised by students who object to using the same facilities as transgender students.

The Oregon case involves the 3,000-student Dallas School District No. 2, which adopted the policy after a student at Dallas High School who was born biologically female began identifying as male. The plan allowed the student to use facilities matching his gender identity and included training for staff and lessons for students against bullying and harassment.

Active-Shooter Drills Just Don’t Work, Say Teachers’ Unions

Worried about the potential for traumatizing students and staff, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Everytown for Gun Safety have a message for schools: Abolish active-shooter drills.

In a new report, the teachers’ unions and the prominent gun-safety group say such drills in schools can do more harm than good.

While the likelihood of a shooting taking place at school is very small, almost all schools prepare for them with some kind of drill—from elaborate simulations to traditional lockdowns.

Yet evidence that active-shooter drills are effective is skimpy, says the report, in part because of scant data and because of wide variation in the types of drills schools deploy. Plus, shooters—often current or former students—are likely familiar with drill protocols.

All this underscores the almost impossible challenge facing schools: how to prepare students and staff for one of the most devastating situations imaginable without breeding anxiety and trauma in the process.

Student Takeaway: District Credit Ratings Can Tank

Stop stealing our kids.

Many public school officials hold that very sentiment in the belief that too much school choice leads to fewer students, which, in turn, leads to bleeding state funding for their schools.

But it’s not just a question of losing money. It’s also a question of having to spend lots more to borrow money.

Take Wisconsin’s Palmyra-Eagle school district. Just this month, S&P Global Agencies, a major credit-rating company, downgraded the school system’s credit rating by two notches to junk status, making it increasingly difficult for the district to take out short-term loans to pay down a rising pile of bills.

The district, which unsuccessfully attempted to dissolve earlier this year, has lost almost half its enrollment in the past decade to surrounding, wealthier suburban systems as the state has expanded its open-enrollment policies.

Analysts say Palmyra-Eagle is indicative of a larger trend in states with expansive open-enrollment policies or a rapidly growing charter sector.

“As long as students can enroll out, that would be an ongoing risk for school districts,” said Andrew Truckenmiller, an S&P Global Agencies analyst.

The majority of America’s 13,000 districts don’t face strong competition, analysts point out, but for those that do, troubles can ensue.

In 2015, Moody’s downgraded more than 46 Michigan districts’ ratings because they were losing so many students to surrounding districts and to the charter sector, which, that year, took in more than $1.2 billion in state aid.

Son of Migrant Workers Takes Superintendents’ Award

And the award goes to ...

... Gustavo Balderas for his leadership of the Eugene 4J district in Oregon, where he’s been superintendent since 2015.

The newly annointed Superintendent of the Year is the son of migrant farmworkers in Oregon. He was educated in Oregon schools and holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Oregon. Before returning to his home state to take the reins in Eugene, he led the Madera and Ocean View school districts, both in California.

During a panel discussion earlier this year for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which runs the award program, Balderas spoke about some of his district’s most recent challenges. Among them, he said, was making newly arrived Guatemalan families feel safe at a time of divisive, often highly charged discourse about immigrants from Central American nations.

“I think that’s been my number-one concern this past year, the impact of kids not feeling safe on our campuses, and how we as building leaders and district leaders provide that safety net for our communities,” Balderas told an audience of school leaders. “Our schools are sanctuaries and [are] making sure all families feel safe and respected. We’ve done ... staff trainings and community building on how to work with our most-marginalized families.”

Among other highlights of his leadership, Balderas helped the district successfully put a $319 million bond to voters in 2018, which helped fund new school construction, along with technology and safety upgrades. He’s also worked to improve partnerships with teacher-preparation programs and make the leadership pipeline in Oregon more diverse.

Briefly Stated contributors: Daarel Burnette II, Arianna Prothero, Stephen Sawchuk, Mark Walsh, and Madeline Will. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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