national newsletter

How federal rules might block local school integration

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville here. We’re feeling thankful for the many of you who’ve joined us since last week.

As always, our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. Read a story you think we should share? Have a tip? Just reply to this email. And if you’re an educator in a Thanksgiving mood, we’d love to know what you’re thankful for, too. You can tell us here.

The big story

Florence County, South Carolina is trying to fix a problem: It has an elementary and a middle school that have remained predominantly black despite efforts to desegregate them.

A few years ago, the district thought it might attract white and Hispanic families by changing enrollment rules at those schools. But parents told officials they couldn’t make it work without transportation. This time around, Florence plans to turn both schools into magnet programs and offer buses to students who need them.

That plan may be about to put the small district west of Myrtle Beach in the middle of a federal funding fight — with the power to influence schools far beyond Florence County.

Patrick Wall, our New York editor who has written extensively on desegregation, explains the conflict: In short, the new federal education law gave districts the green light to spend magnet money on buses. But old rules say federal money can’t be used for transportation to integrate schools — rules that have ended up in every federal spending bill since the 1970s, during the height of the backlash against busing in some American cities.

Will those rules make it into this year’s bill, too, setting up a challenge for small districts like Florence and large ones like Miami-Dade? Advocates hope not.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia. The issue is in lawmakers’ hands now.

Local stories to watch

  • Author David Osborne is traveling the country to promote a model like Indianapolis’s for school reform, but locals are skeptical it will translate. For a confluence of legal and political reasons, “innovation schools” have expanded pretty painlessly there. “There have to be so many conditions in place and there has to be a local will to get it done,” one supporter of the changes said.
  • Tennessee’s two big school turnaround initiatives got a report card. One big lesson: Taking control of schools away from local governments isn’t necessary to improve outcomes for students.
  • Mental health crises in New York City schools often involve the police. Police used handcuffs on black students in crisis 15 percent of the time, new data show, almost twice the rate of white students.
  • In Newark, educators and families say a recent study’s findings ring true. The district’s education policies have been transformed in the years since Mark Zuckerberg’s high-profile $100 million gift. The result, according to that research, is faster progress in English after some initial disruption.

Matt’s research roundup

Weakening Wisconsin teachers unions hurt student achievement. That’s the conclusion of the first study of how Scott Walker’s high-profile effort to gut union power affected students.

The negative effects were concentrated in already-struggling schools, which saw more affluent districts poach their talented teachers with performance pay, allowed under the new law. This comes as the Supreme Court seems poised to take the Wisconsin model national, dramatically scaling back union power.

Still, some caution is in order: This is one study on the short-term effects of one law. Other research on how unions affect learning is more mixed.

Achievement gaps are larger where school districts in a metro area are more segregated by income … but not for the reason you’d think. The larger gaps seem to be driven by greater achievement among more affluent students — not lower achievement for poor kids, according to a new study.

The research can’t definitively show cause and effect, but it’s a slightly puzzling finding. That’s because most past studies have shown that segregation hurts low income kids and has no effect on wealthier kids; but this paper suggests segregation has no effect on low-income kids, but helps wealthier ones.

Tracking DeVos

Key members of Betsy DeVos’s education department met with critics of efforts to reduce school suspensions, saying that 2014 guidance from the Obama administration on this front should be eliminated. Mike Petrilli, head of the Fordham Institute, which helped organize the meeting, told Chalkbeat that department officials didn’t signal what they were thinking about doing next. Supporters say these rules are essential to guard against discrimination.

As for DeVos herself, her public schedule lists no events on this holiday-shortened week.

Mick Zais, the nominee to be DeVos’s second in command, got off to an inauspicious start in his confirmation hearing last week — he said he was unaware of widely covered studies showing that school vouchers can have negative effects on student test scores.

Meanwhile, DeVos’ brother Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, a private security company, is rumored to be eyeing a Senate run in Wyoming. When EdWeek asked for comment from DeVos on this, her personal spokesperson responded this way: “Betsy does not respond to outlandish hypotheticals churned by ne’er-do-wells of fake news; if the question is does she love her brother, ‘yes’ is the answer.”

What we’re reading

  • Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission — most of whose members are appointed by the Pennsylvania governor — has voted to abolish itself, paving the way for mayoral control to go into effect next July. Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Analysis of past research shows that, yes, early childhood education has long-lasting positive effects on kids. The 74
  • Washington isn’t moving quickly enough to fully fund its schools, ruled the state Supreme Court, the latest in a long-running legal battle. Seattle Times
  • The U.S.’s mediocre ranking on international tests may be because students aren’t motivated to try their hardest on these low-stakes exams. Hechinger Report
  • Since 2012, at least 15 states have taken steps to advance “personalized learning.” EdWeek
  • California’s approach to school accountability continues to get low marks from national groups, but state officials defend their approach. EdSource