Major changes to Title IX, a laser focus on school safety, and a crackdown on for-profit charter schools: 2022 was a year full of major developments in K-12 education policy.
With a looming midterm election, politicians and lawmakers at the federal level spent the year working to win over voters who care about K-12 education issues.
For Democrats and the Biden administration, that meant enforcing policies that protected public school funding and reinforced rights for LGBTQ students. In states with majority Republican lawmakers, that meant supporting parents’ rights policies, lobbying to ban specific books, and placing more scrutiny over social studies curricula.
But one of the biggest issues this year was school safety. The May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, reignited a debate over gun laws and school safety, leading Congress to pass the first major gun-safety legislation in 30 years.
This past year also saw schools continue to struggle with the lasting impacts of the pandemic, pushing policymakers to pay attention to issues such as teacher pay, school meals, and school staffing shortages.
Here are the big policy developments in 2022 that could hint at what’s to come in 2023.
Bipartisan Safer Communities Act
President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June following the Uvalde shooting in which a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers. The legislation is the first major gun-safety law to pass Congress in three decades.
Education Week counted more than 50 school shootings that resulted in injuries or deaths in 2022—a number that’s higher than any calendar year since Education Week began tracking school shootings in 2018.
The new federal gun-safety law creates an “enhanced review process” for gun buyers who are 21 or younger and provides funding for states to enact “red-flag laws,” which allow judges to limit a person’s access to guns if they are considered a threat to themselves or others. It also provides $1 billion to help schools address school social worker and psychologist shortages.
Proposed changes to Title IX
In June, the U.S. Department of Education announced proposed changes to Title IX, the federal sex-discrimination law, that would mean explicit protections for LGBTQ students.
While policy experts and judges have long interpreted Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 to protect students from discrimination based on their gender identity or sexuality, the proposed rules would make those interpretations explicit, a decision LGBTQ advocates say is much needed after a year in which many discriminatory state laws were passed.
The proposed changes, which brought in over 200,000 public comments and are expected to be finalized in the coming year, also would roll back Trump-era policies that make it more difficult for sexual assault and harassment victims to receive justice. The changes also would add more robust protections for pregnant and parenting students—including a requirement that schools provide break times and private spaces for lactating mothers.
However, the proposed changes do not say anything about whether transgender students have a right to participate in sports aligned with their gender identity. The Education Department plans to conduct a separate rule-making process about that issue in the coming year.
Universal free school meals come to an end
For the first time in two and a half years, students had to pay for meals this fall if they didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That’s because Congress chose not to include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pandemic-era meal waivers, which gave schools flexibility to serve meals to go and gave students access to free meals regardless of income, in Biden’s 2022 federal budget passed in March.
Facing pressure from school nutrition workers, who worried about staffing shortages and inflation, Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act in June, extending the USDA waivers that allow school cafeterias to provide breakfast and lunch to go and access to higher reimbursement rates for meals. The law didn’t extend the waiver that allowed all children to eat for free.
An effort to extend the universal free meals also failed to make it into Congress’ fiscal 2023 spending package, which passed Dec. 23. But a handful of states—including California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont—have elected to make universal free school meals a reality for all students, at least through this school year.
In states where that’s not happening, student school meal debts have been on the rise, and federal data have shown that schools are struggling to get eligible families to sign up for free and reduced-price meals.
Crackdown on for-profit charter schools
The Biden administration took a stance against for-profit charter school organizations after establishing new rules to the Charter School Program, a federal grant that funds charters in their first three years of operation.
The rules require new charter schools to complete a needs analysis to demonstrate a need for the school in the area and show how the school won’t negatively impact school desegregation efforts in the community. It also requires grant applicants to prove they aren’t under the control of a for-profit company and divulge if they have plans to contract with a for-profit education management organization.
Some states increased funding. Others scrutinized curriculum and teaching practices.
State education policy varied widely in 2022, depending on political leanings.
Ballot measures that will provide more funding for K-12 schools passed in California, Colorado, Idaho, Massachusetts, and New Mexico. Those measures will lead, for instance, to universal prekindergarten in New Mexico, $1 billion for arts education in California, and universal free meals for students in Colorado.
Meanwhile, in over a dozen states, educators felt the impact of so-called parents’ rights measures and anti-critical race theory laws that limit how they can teach about issues like race, gender identity, and sexuality. In Oklahoma, two school districts received downgraded accreditations for violating laws that restrict conversations about race and racism. And in Florida, teachers were worried about losing their licenses after an amendment to the state’s Parental Rights in Education law said teachers’ licenses could be revoked if they teach students in K-3 about gender identity or sexual orientation.
COVID-19 aid must be spent by deadlines, federal officials emphasize
School funding remained an area of focus for policymakers in 2022, especially as schools continued to spend $190 billion in COVID-19 relief funds.
Over the year, school leaders called on the Education Department to provide more flexibility in the timelines for spending the money, but federal officials remained steadfast in their messaging that the funds are meant to be used to help students in the immediate response to the pandemic.
Despite the lack of flexibility on the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, federal officials did manage to increase funding for K-12 schools ahead of the 2023 fiscal year. Congress approved $18.4 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion for the federal Title I program, which aims to direct more money to districts and schools with a large share of students from low-income families. Special education funding also jumped $2.5 billion over last year, totaling $15.5 billion, and 2023 funds to support English-learners received $890 million, an increase of $82 million over 2022.