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What’s driving inequities in American schools?

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. Reply and say hi! 


The big story

Sometimes, understanding why different schools are experiencing wildly different academic results means examining decisions made in the last few years, by school boards or state officials. Sometimes, it means looking further into the past. Often, it’s both.

That’s why a report highlighting the anniversary of the Milliken v. Bradley decision, which limited courts’ ability to order desegregation across district borders, caught our attention. Forty-five years later, schools in many parts of the country remain segregated by race and income, often across those district lines

“The sorry state of racial integration in modern times can be understood as a major legacy of Milliken v. Bradley,” explained law professor Justin Driver. The report, by the nonprofit EdBuild, shows that those district borders also represent differences in state and local education spending — and districts serving more students of color are often shortchanged.

Both the federal government and state courts have made efforts — some quite successful — to address this. But America’s school funding disparities go beyond neighboring districts. Tougher to see and harder to fix are the massive differences in spending between states, which are part of the equation, too.

Connecticut, for instance, spends more than twice as much as Mississippi, which has a much larger share of poor students. And many of the states that spend the least, including Arizona, Mississippi, and California, serve more low-income students and students of color.

Funding concerns have prompted a number of Democratic presidential candidates to promise to help level the playing field. But doing so, experts say, won’t be easy. Here’s more.


Also from the national desk

Kalyn here: I spent the start of the week in Houston for a three-day event hosted by KIPP — and attended by 6,000 of its educators, staff, and alumni on the charter network’s 25th anniversary. For those keeping track, KIPP is at 242 schools, and won federal dollars earlier this year to open more than 50 more. 

What stuck out? KIPP aimed a portion of the event at adult alumni, offering help with things like money management and mental health, and officials say more formal efforts to connect alumni are in the works. A full day was devoted to race and equity, reflecting discussions that have been going on for years about staff diversity and the right kinds of discipline to employ in schools that serve mostly students of color. 

KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth also offered some more details about where, exactly, those new schools are likely to be located. Here’s more.


Local stories to watch

  • Tennessee is trying to figure out what to do with its turnaround school district. Seven years in, the district recently saw its third leader leave, and a study found the program has not improved student achievement. So they asked for advice, convening leaders from Louisiana, Florida, and elsewhere who argued for more funding, tougher accountability and efforts to garner local buy-in.
  • Principals in New York City don’t know what’s happening after officials axed its turnaround program, which cost more than three-quarters of a billion dollars and produced limited evidence of success. The city has yet to flesh out what help still-struggling schools will receive next year.
  • Indianapolis’s bus system is getting better, and the school choice-heavy city is taking notice. Many charter schools buy students public transit passes rather than shoulder the cost of running their own buses, and the local school district is testing that approach, too. 
  • Chicago is helping schools with many needy students hold onto teachers. The city is expanding its “Opportunity Schools” program, which pairs new teachers at schools with many students from low-income families with mentors and coaches. 
  • The race is on for New Jersey schools to comply with a new law requiring LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum. In Newark, where efforts to include LGBTQ+ students have receded as a priority recently, one school board member is vowing to meet the deadline.

Research roundup

  • What do teachers think of school discipline? According to a recent survey, released by the Fordham Institute, teachers tended to believe that out-of-school suspensions can be effective, and many, including black teachers, said they weren’t used enough in their school. At the same time, three-quarters of black teachers said they believed black students face harsher consequences than white students for the same offense. (Few white teachers agreed.) Teachers also said that alternatives to suspension — like restorative justice and PBIS — can be effective. Finally, a number of teachers who said suspensions were declining at their schools said that was in part due to under-reporting. That was particularly true in New York City, which has been at the forefront of efforts to tamp down on suspensions. 

DeVos watch

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos didn’t release a public schedule this week. But she’s been at the center of a couple of high-profile fights with teachers unions. 

One is with the National Education Association over a lawsuit the union filed about online colleges. A judge’s ruling prompted thousands of California college students to suddenly lose financial aid, though the issue may be resolved soon. 

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers’ suit over the federal student loan forgiveness program continues to make headlines. Our New York City colleagues talked to one of the plaintiffs, a teacher at Manhattan’s I.S. 528 who still has $88,000 in loans. “Before, no one had cared. I had no power. I had no voice. It was me, and it was Nelnet on the phone,” Kelly Finlaw said.

According to a new report from the Center of American Progress using federal data, Trump’s education department has been much more likely than the Obama administration to dismiss LGTBTQ-related civil rights complaints.


2020 vision

Diane Ravitch is no fan of Peter Buttigieg. In a recent blog post she says that advisors to his campaign discussed education policy with her and indicated support for nonprofit charter schools, but opposition to private school vouchers and for-profit charters. (That’s consistent with what Buttigieg has said publicly.) Ravitch also said that the campaign has reached out to former Education Secretary John King, former Obama education education official Jim Shelton, and teachers union president Randi Weingarten for advice.

Michael Bennet, a former Denver schools superintendent, says he disagrees with a moratorium on charter schools and argues that school reforms have been largely successful in Denver.

Julián Castro writes about his own experience in public schools, specifically when his mom pulled him from a local middle school because of its low expectations.

Kamala Harris announced her plan to invest $2.5 billion into teacher training programs at historically black colleges and universities on Friday. She’s also proposing $60 billion for scholarships, research grants, fellowships, and infrastructure improvements at HBCUs. 

Education was not a key discussion point for the 10 candidates who took to the stage last night for the second round of 2020 Democratic presidential debates. We’ll be watching again tonight. In the meantime, read up on the candidates’ stances on education in our cheat sheet.


Names to note

Alex Caputo-Pearl, who led the Los Angeles teachers strike as local union president, can’t run for re-election because of term limits — so he’s running for vice president instead.

New Mexico education secretary Karen Trujillo was fired after six months on the job. 


What we’re reading

  • How one school in the Bronx is supporting Yemeni immigrant students, including those separated from their family members. WNYC 
  • Democracy Prep’s CEO wants the charter network to continue to distance itself from a “no excuses” approach and reshape its funding model. Education Post
  • In a sign of the times, charter advocates in D.C. say a lease dispute highlights hostility from city education officials. Washington Post

Photo by Aaron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post