School Choice & Charters Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

September 16, 2020 8 min read

Judge Strikes Down Rule on Relief Aid for Private Schools

Third time’s a charm, or is it a crowd? Regardless, supporters of doing away with a federal rule requiring public school districts to share their coronavirus relief funds with all private school students are welcoming the third judicial finding in their favor. Unlike the two previous preliminary orders, issued by courts in California and Washington state, federal District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich’s Sept. 4 summary judgment applies nationwide.

“In the end, it is difficult to imagine how Congress could have been clearer,” Friedrich wrote, rejecting the U.S. Department of Education’s argument that it had authority to draft the regulation that was anathema to public school officials.

Ever since the rule was unveiled earlier this year, public education and civil rights groups had argued that the CARES Act rule siphoned needed resources away from public schools at a time when state and local funding concerns are threatening their ability to maintain staff and operations. Plaintiffs in this case, led by the NAACP, argued that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education violated the intent of Congress when they drafted the relief bill by introducing the additional regulation.

The rule, championed by DeVos, directed public schools to set aside money for what’s known as “equitable services” for all local private school students, if the public schools wanted to use the remaining money for all their local public schools.

That’s a departure from how federal law typically handles those services, which are normally provided to disadvantaged and at-risk students in private schools. DeVos and top department officials justified the rule by saying that the CARES Act is clearly intended to benefit all students, since all students have been hurt by the pandemic.

Courts typically defer to federal agencies’ interpretations in the case of “vague terms, contradictory provisions, or ‘inartful drafting,’ ” but this “is not one of those cases,” Friedrich wrote, saying that Congress spoke “with clarity and precision” when it outlined how the CARES Act funds should be distributed

Tens of Thousands of Students in Dallas/Fort Worth Don’t Show Up for Remote Learning in the Spring

America may be producing a new “lost generation.” A stunning Dallas Morning News analysis of state data shows that more than 100,000 students in the Dallas-Fort Worth area never engaged in their remote learning assignments last spring, and about 20,000 of them dropped out of contact.

The analysis, out last week, puts a spotlight on what many educators have acknowledged remains a significant problem in the age of COVID-19. It’s a harbinger of what is almost certainly a national catastrophe.

What’s causing the calamity is probably multifaceted—lack of stable housing, increased mobility stemming from the economic fallout of the pandemic, lack of access to the internet, disengagement from teachers and peers, illness or trauma at home.

The Dallas newspaper terms it no less than a potential “lost generation” of students, unless drastic steps are taken to find those students and make up for the learning loss they’ve suffered.

To gauge the degree of the problem, the newspaper analyzed labels the Texas Education Agency assigned each student, based on district reports of how responsive students were to assignments over two time periods: from the start of the COVID-19 break to April 30 and from May 1 to the end of the school year.

The analysis included 80 of the largest Dallas/Fort Worth districts and charter schools.

In general, wealthier districts tended to have higher levels of engagement. Several of these well-resourced districts said almost all their students were fully engaged.

In all, the newspaper found that more than 100,000 children across the 80 districts failed to engage in assignments at all or stopped doing them by May 1.The implications for student learning are likely to be felt nationwide unless all the country’s 14,000 districts design comprehensive plans to ensure student engagement as the pandemic continues.

Appeals Court Resurrects Lawsuit Stemming From Class Discussion of Black Lives Matter

When can students speak in school? What can—or can’t—they say? Can teachers squelch their words and perhaps even misrepresent them? Those are some of the questions at the heart of a lawsuit that was given new life this month when a federal appeals court revived it on behalf of a Nebraska middle schooler who alleges that in 2016 her teacher cut her off during a classroom discussion about athletes kneeling during the national anthem in support of Black Lives Matter and later labeled her a racist in front of other students.

Although the unanimous three-judge panel, in St. Louis, ruled for the family on one narrow procedural issue—that they deserved to have a lawyer appointed to represent them in the case—the court went a step further. It suggested that the case raises an important question about student expression, and there may be some merit in the girl’s case, if proven.

“The extent to which teachers may control student speech in the classroom is an open issue,” the 8th Circuit court said in its decision.

“Whatever the scope of a teacher’s authority to limit classroom discussion, it is clear that students ‘cannot be punished merely for expressing their personal views on the school premises—whether in the cafeteria, or on the playing field, or on the campus during the authorized hours,’ ”the court said, quoting from previous U.S. Supreme Court student-expression decisions.

According to the family’s lawsuit, a teacher in the Westview Community district insisted that the girl, identified as A.C., share her views about athletes kneeling during the national anthem.

The discussion also touched on community reactions to a police shooting of an unarmed Black man. The girl said she found the kneeling disrespectful to the police and the military and rap songs that used the N-word and lyrics such as “F*** the police” helped stir the violence.

(The suit says she did not utter those words in class.)A.C. began to discuss a conversation she had overheard the previous school year between two 7th graders, one white and one Black, about why Black people could say the N-word and white people could not. This is when the teacher cut her off, the suit says. A.C. had intended to say she did not believe anyone should utter it, the suit says.

The next day, the suit says, the teacher sent an email to A.C.’s mother stating that the student had to be cut off because the information she shared took a “dicey turn” with her making statements that “generalize Blacks.”The suit says the girl began receiving text messages from fellow students suggesting that the teacher had labeled her a racist.

COVID-19 or Not, Don’t Expect Testing Waivers

Forget the coronavirus, remote teaching, the resurgence of the disease in schools with in-person classes. States are being ordered to march forward with their annual testing anyway.

In a recent letter to chief state school officers, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told states they should not count on getting the same waivers from federal testing mandates for this school year that they got last spring as the pandemic shut down schools.

DeVos said annual summative assessments in English/language arts, math, and science are “at the very core” of the bipartisan agreement behind the Every Student Succeeds Act. And at a time when vulnerable students have been hurt the most by the pandemic, such tests are “among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school.”

During the 2020-21 school year, she wrote, “you should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”The letter does not completely shut the door on such waivers, though, since the secretary does not say unequivocally that they won’t be approved again no matter what. Still, it’s bad news for some states that have indicated their desire for one.

In the letter, DeVos also says it may be time for states to rethink their traditional assessment systems and consider forms of testing like mastery-based assessments. And she also left some wiggle room for states to change how these tests factor into school ratings and the like.

To support her position, DeVos pointed to groups that have recently called for states to “stay the course” on annual testing despite the impact of the coronavirus on schools.

Not everyone’s on board. Richard Woods, Georgia’s schools superintendent, swiftly criticized the letter. “It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education,” said Woods, an elected Republican.

Trump’s Threat to Penalize Schools for Teaching ‘1619’ Runs Afoul of Federal Law

History teachers, take heart. President Donald Trump can’t make good on his threat to withhold education funding to schools that teach the 1619 Project curriculum.U.S. law forbids the federal government—that includes the president and Congress—from meddling with schools’curriculum. It’s that simple.

Trump this month tweeted that California schools would lose education funding if they were teaching the 1619 Project curriculum, a history classroom guide and resources based on The New York Times project of the same name. (What the president’s threat means for schools in the other 49 states is unclear.)

In another tweet, Trump wrote: “Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded!” No response was forthcoming from the Education Department.

The statement is the latest commentary from the president critiquing the study in U.S. schools of systemic racism. In late August, his re-election campaign issued a list of second-term priorities that included the call to “teach American exceptionalism.”

The 1619 Project argues that the United States doesn’t originate with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but in 1619—the year that the first enslaved Africans were brought to the continent. The project traces the impact of slavery on the country’s institutions and founding principles. An accompanying curriculum adapts the project for all grade levels.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Education Department can’t even endorse a certain program of study, said Anne Hyslop, a department official during the Obama administration. Nor can it make existing funding conditional on certain curricula or types of instruction, she said. “You can’t put the federal stamp of approval on a curriculum, or sanction one.”

Briefly Stated Contributors: Evie Blad, Stephen Sawchuk, Sarah Schwartz, Andrew Ujifusa, and Mark Walsh. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2020 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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