Equity & Diversity Briefly Stated

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May 11, 2020 6 min read

Tennessee Voucher Law Ruled Unconstitutional; Gov. Shifts Strategies

A Tennessee judge ruled last week that the state’s much-debated school voucher program is illegal and cannot be implemented despite education officials receiving thousands of applications from parents hoping to use public tax dollars on private school tuition.

That didn’t stop GOP Gov. Bill Lee from urging parents to continue submitting applications—the very next day—only to reverse course a day later by hitting pause.

In the interim, Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office quietly submitted a request asking the judge to lift the injunction while the lawsuit moves through the court system.

Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin, who handed down the original order, scheduled a hearing for late last week to review the request.

A day after that original order, Lee said, “We are still encouraging parents to apply to the program because we believe that it will continue to move forward.”

And, in what might be construed as another kick in the teeth to traditional public schools, he included $41 million for the voucher program in a state budget he was forced to drastically reduce because of recession concerns caused by the COVID-19 outbreak—in part by decreasing pay bumps he had proposed for public school teachers.

In her judicial order, Martin said that the voucher law violated the state constitution’s “home rule,” which bars the legislature from passing measures singling out individual counties without local support.

The voucher program would only apply to Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, the areas with the lowest-performing schools and regions with Democratic political strongholds.

The original version of the measure included several other regions; it was whittled down after Republican lawmakers objected because of uneasiness about launching vouchers in their own legislative districts.

Democratic lawmakers in Nashville and Memphis had also objected to the voucher bill.

The program would allow eligible families to use up to $7,300 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other preapproved expenses.

Despite Racial Isolation, Federal Judge Lifts Ga. District’s Desegregation Order

A federal judge is releasing a southwest Georgia school system from a racial-desegregation order, ruling its overwhelmingly African American enrollment isn’t its fault, even though enrollment doesn’t match the demographics of the surrounding community.

Black parents first sued to desegregate the Dougherty County district 57 years ago. The ruling late last month means the 14,000-student district has reached “unitary” status and no longer needs to be monitored by the courts.

Dougherty County requested the change in status, arguing that court supervision has kept the district from operating efficiently.

The county is about 71 percent black and 26 percent white; the district, in contrast, is 89 percent black and 5 percent white.

But, “It is clear that current racial imbalances ... are the result of demographic shifts outside of the school board’s control,” said U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands Sr.

Dougherty County is part of the South’s “Black Belt,” a multistate grouping of counties with a largely black population.

In 1980, the date of the most recent desegregation order, the district’s population was 55 percent white and 45 percent black.

Since then, white residents have left the public schools for private schools in the county or left the county entirely; the neighboring 6,200-student Lee County district to the north, for example, is 67 percent white and 23 percent black. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley, prevents desegregation efforts that cross district boundaries. The organization EdBuild has said that such district boundaries serve to wall off wealthy areas from poorer neighborhoods.

“That’s why school district borders matter,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “As we start to see our communities splinter apart, we’re starting to see more and more racial isolation.”

Remote Learning Complaints Claim Longtime IT Director

School closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have claimed an IT leader. The head of technology for Virginia’s Fairfax County district, one of the nation’s largest, resigned after more than two decades, following intense criticism of the system’s remote learning rollout.

Maribeth Luftglass served as assistant superintendent of information technology for the district since 1999.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand told staff the week of April 20 that she had quit, according to The Washington Post. Luftglass was reached by phone April 23 but said she had no comment on the situation.

Just last week, a spokeswoman said that teachers have begun successfully offering synchronous face-to-face class sessions.

“Our school-based technology staff are working very closely with teachers ... to make sure everyone has the information and the tools they need,” Lucy Caldwell said.

Fairfax County certainly isn’t alone in its online learning woes.

Remote teaching has been a challenge for schools nationwide during the shutdowns. Many districts weren’t prepared to deliver instruction remotely, and many families nationwide lack access to WiFi and digital devices necessary to complete online work.

The Fairfax school system shut down buildings March 13 and began offering remote instruction four weeks later. Almost immediately, students and parents complained of technical glitches, teachers encountered inappropriate conduct from students, and school employees bemoaned the district’s inadequate preparation for privacy protocol and technology updates, The Post reported.

District officials and representatives of the technology-platform partner Blackboard reportedly differed on who was to blame for the issues. A Blackboard executive said Fairfax officials had failed to implement necessary features and updates, while Luftglass said the company hadn’t informed her team of those requirements.

92-Year-Old Retired Educator Becomes 1st Graders’ Pen Pal

Keeping students connected—and engaged—during remote learning can be hard. But under the coronavirus lockdown, two generations of teachers are working to do just that for Nancy Cartier’s 1st grade class in Dayton, Maine.

As virtual lessons got underway in Maine, Cartier told her students at Dayton Consolidated School about her father.

Vincent Nuccio, 92, had lost both his wife and son in the past two years, and the need to keep him safe from coronavirus exposure meant he could no longer see friends or sing in his local retired men’s glee club. About half the class opted to write to him.

Nuccio was thrilled and responded with cards and stickers, which “snowballed into ... mak[ing] a video for them,” Cartier said.

In the first video, Nuccio introduced himself as their “mystery man” pen pal and went on to turn his introduction into an impromptu geography lesson, describing a family train trip from Beverly, Mass., to Portsmouth, N.H., and challenging the students to trace his route on a map.

For Nuccio, it’s a return to the classroom. He was a math teacher early in his career and later a professor of education at Boston College.

Now, most of the class has gone through several rounds of letters with Nuccio, and he has sent an additional video, showing off his singing and giving the students funny math puzzles to solve.

Cartier said she has been impressed with her students’ eagerness to write by hand. “They’ve learned, you know, that a simple gesture of drawing a picture or writing a quick note to a person that’s alone is really what this is all about. It’s a good reason, good excuse to have them writing and reaching out more themselves.

Briefly Stated Contributors: Associated Press, Mark Lieberman, Christina A. Samuels, and Sarah D. Sparks. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2020 edition of Education Week

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