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Nationally, federal turnaround funding generates mixed reviews

New York City’s controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country’s lowest-performing schools. In the first of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education WeekThe Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Alyson Klein examines the effects of federal School Improvement Grants on districts across the country — and the grants’ uncertain future. GothamSchools was one of a dozen news organizations to contribute to the reporting.

After two years, the federal program providing billions of dollars to help states and districts close or remake some of their worst-performing schools remains an ambitious work in progress, with roughly 1,200 turnaround efforts under way but still no verdict on its effectiveness.

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, supercharged by a $3 billion windfall under the federal economic-stimulus program in 2009, has jumpstarted aggressive moves by states and districts. To get their share of the money, they had to quickly identify some of their most academically troubled schools, craft new teacher-evaluation systems, and carve out more time for instruction, among other steps.

Some schools and districts spent millions of dollars on outside experts and consultants. Others went through the politically ticklish process of replacing teachers and principals, while combating community skepticism and meeting the demands of district and state overseers.

It’s not at all clear if the federal prescription can cure the most ailing schools and lead to long-term improvements, but preliminary student achievement data for the program offer some promise. The U.S. Department of Education looked at about 700 of the schools in their second year of the program and found that a quarter of them posted double-digit gains in math during the 2010-11 school year. Another 20 percent showed similar progress in reading.

A collaborative reporting project drawing on the efforts of more than 20 news organizations and affiliated journalists paints a mixed picture of how the SIG program is playing out on the ground. The major findings show:

  • States have pulled SIG money from at least a dozen schools that showed anemic progress on early indicators of success, such as teacher and student attendance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Five schools in Pueblo City, Colo., have seen student performance sink even lower after awarding a $7.4 million grant to an outside provider.
  • A plan for a new teacher-evaluation system in New York City led to at least a temporary loss in turnaround funding after city officials clashed with the local teachers union.
  • Schools nationwide, especially those in rural areas, are wrestling with personnel and leadership changes driven by the program’s requirements, along with a mandate to add extra time to the instructional day.

At the same time, the program’s supporters can point to encouraging — though early — developments.

In Louisville, Ky., a handful of long-troubled schools posted double-digit gains in its state math scores after just one year in the program. An elementary school in an isolated corner of Colorado saw a 9-point spike in its state math scores, and smaller gains in other subjects.

Other schools haven’t seen big jumps in achievement yet but are beginning to glimpse a new school culture, including improved discipline and attendance. Some of the best early reviews come from students, who say their schools are calmer and more academically rigorous.

“I feel more safe, and I feel like I’m learning more. They are starting to have challenges for us,” said Jasmine Dukes, a seventh-grader at Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton, formerly Calverton Middle School, in Baltimore.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also sees signs of recovery in schools across the country, even as he cautions that it’s still too early to draw conclusions about the program’s effectiveness.

“Big picture, there’s really significant movement in a very short amount of time, which I think a lot of folks felt wasn’t possible,” Duncan said. But he doesn’t expect overnight success: “This is really, really hard work; there’s a reason the country took a pass on this for a couple of decades.”

All of which argues for caution in assessing the program’s effectiveness so far.

“There’s evidence on both sides of the coin,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and a leading researcher on school improvement. “This is not the Oldsmobile of comprehensive school reform. … [This is] a souped-up model coming hard and fast and getting big changes quick. … The big question is whether those changes are going to lead to improvement.”

Funding Gusher

The current SIG program is a bolder version of a once-sleepy program created under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 to help states turn around their lowest-performing schools. In its original form, the program never topped $500 million in federal funding — less than one-half of 1 percent of current federal education spending overall.

But in 2009, federal lawmakers — in passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and with little debate — poured an additional $3 billion into SIG. That sent districts scrambling for a share of the three-year competitive grants, worth up to $2 million annually to perennially struggling schools.

With the flood of cash came new, tighter strings. Eligible schools — identified through a complex, multi-tiered process — are among what the Education Department often describes as a state’s bottom 5 percent academically. Schools taking the money have to adopt one of four controversial improvement models. In some cases, at least half of a school’s teaching staff must be replaced. A school might be converted into a charter school — or even shut down. And no matter which option is chosen, a school’s principal must be removed, unless that person has been on the job for under three years.

Federal officials defend that prescriptive approach. They say that, in the past, states had failed to pick rigorous turnaround options — such as taking over a school or turning it into a charter — when given a broader menu of choices.

“Schools literally got worse,” said Duncan. “The children that need the most help, the majority of them, got less help than before. That was absolutely crazy to me; that’s what I was fighting against” in overhauling the SIG program.

So far, the department has examined results for roughly 700 of the 850 schools that joined the program in 2010-11, and it plans to release more information on student results later this year. During the first year of the program, the proportion of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in roughly 60 percent of SIG schools, Duncan said.

But some state and local leaders still chafe at what they see as a heavy-handed federal approach.

“It’s too restrictive. They mandated these models before they even researched them,” said Keith Rheault, who served more than a decade as Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, before retiring on April 2nd. “We’re testing it out.”

From the get-go, the program has been reviled on Capitol Hill as Exhibit A for those arguing against federal overreach in K-12 education. Congressional critics — Democrats and Republicans alike — assail what they see as arbitrary staffing requirements, a lack of options for rural schools, and a wobbly research base. The program is almost certain to get an extreme makeover, and its funding remains in jeopardy.

Still, a majority of urban school district officials think the program has the potential to deliver lasting change to long-foundering schools, according to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization in Washington, D.C., that represents the nation’s urban school districts.

Some state leaders are upbeat as well. “Overall, I’m optimistic and positive about the grants,” said Mark Coscarella, assistant director in the Office of Education Improvement and Innovation at the Michigan Department of Education. “I think we’ve seen schools really take on the challenge of making some really important improvements.”

Time Crunch

Schools have made big changes against a tight clock, a consequence of the program’s genesis: the 2009 stimulus package, which sought to pump job-boosting federal money into the economy. Although the grants run for three years, some school districts got their money just weeks before the start of the 2010-11 school year.

That left many districts with little time to find principals or teachers and sell the reforms to the community. A report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, criticized the federal Education Department for taking too long to process applications, which did not give districts and schools enough time to figure out the program’s tricky framework.

Local school leaders say they are still recovering from the crunch.

“There’s a lot to do in a short period of time,” said Philip Yaccick, principal of the Weston Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Detroit, which received a $1.8 million SIG grant. “In an ordinary situation, there’s a little more time to create the change, but then also [to] implement and solidify the change.”

But federal officials defend the accelerated timeline from both a job-creation and school-turnaround standpoint.

“Our children had waited too long. We realized we should not — we could not — wait any longer,” said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Personnel Hurdles

By far, districts and schools have had the toughest time with the SIG program’s human resources requirements, which demand big changes in how schools deal with staff under all four of the federal models.

Even the most flexible of those models — “transformation,” the one chosen by nearly three-quarters of participating schools — requires districts to devise teacher-evaluation systems that take student performance into account.

The task has proven so difficult that last August, the federal Education Department gave states and districts until the start of the 2013-14 school year to have the systems fully implemented for use in teacher compensation and retention decisions. But the process has been rocky: Earlier this year, New York State withheld SIG money from New York City when the city teachers union and the district struggled to reach agreement on an evaluation system.

Under a number of models, districts and schools have struggled to replace long-serving teachers and principals. More than half of participating large urban districts said they didn’t have enough time to hire qualified staff, according to the urban schools group survey.

Some schools using the second-most popular option — “turnaround,” which calls for getting rid of at least half a school’s staff — scrambled to fill slots, or hired scores of novice teachers. For example, an analysis by the The Courier-Journal, of Louisville, found that 60 new hires across seven SIG schools, or more than 40 percent, were new to the profession.

To lure qualified educators, some districts, including Nevada’s Clark County, spent SIG funding on signing bonuses to attract experienced teachers. Indiana and other states turned to alternative training programs such as Teach For America, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that places new college graduates in under-resourced schools. And in Chicago, some schools are partnering with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, where prospective educators spend a “residency” year working with a master teacher.

Some schools kept most of their teaching forces, but used their SIG funds for extensive professional development. Chicago’s Hancock High School spent part of its grant on three “interventionists” — master teachers in reading, math and writing who teach demonstration lessons and work with students and teachers individually.

“When you have a brand-new set of teachers, it’s difficult to know how it will play out,” said Pam Glynn, the Hancock principal. “They may be well-versed in content, but may come from a different socioeconomic group and may struggle to connect with the kids.”

The nation’s rural schools, which account for about a fifth of SIG schools overall, have opted mainly for the flexible “transformation” model, which doesn’t call for a big staffing shake-up, but requires schools to replace the principal, create new teacher-evaluation systems and add learning time to the school day.

“We’re not Denver,” said George Welsh, superintendent of the 600-student Center Consolidated School District, which has a single elementary school. “We didn’t think that just firing half of our teachers and hiring whatever was available out there was necessarily going to be a higher-quality option than what we currently have.”

In some cases, schools have promised to hire instructional coaches and other support staff, only to find a dearth of qualified applicants, said Caitlin Scott, a consultant for the Center on Education Policy, a research organization in Washington that has closely studied SIG implementation in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan.

“The money doesn’t create new people,” she said. “The problem of staffing a hard-to-staff school is more complicated, and we haven’t really solved that problem yet.”

Management Demands

Finding principals with track records in turnarounds has also been tough. In some cases, districts shuffled principals from one SIG school to another — in New York City, the new leader for Grover Cleveland High School came from Queens Vocational High School, another school getting federal improvement funds.

And in other places, jobs sat vacant while districts searched for the right candidate. DePue High School, in the tiny town of DePue, Ill., didn’t find a new principal until its second year in the program. Baltimore, which brought in outside groups to manage five of its seven SIG schools under the little-used “restart” option, saw a big turnover in principals: Two of those schools went through three principals in the first year, while another had its principal replaced mid-year.

Some local leaders remain skeptical of the principal-removal requirement.

“I question the research behind that particular element,” said Barbara VanSweden, the superintendent of the Fitzgerald School District, in the metropolitan Detroit area. “I look at our situation and the fact that our principal has begun to make improvements in the area of student achievement.”

But others see the approach as promising. More than half of 46 state Title I directors — who oversee programs for disadvantaged students — said that replacing the principal was a key element to improving student achievement in “transformation” and “turnaround” schools, according to a survey by the Center on Education Policy.

Juggling the Schedule

Even interventions with broader political support — such as adding more learning time to the school day — have bumped up against realities such as teacher contracts and bus schedules. Some schools have simply juggled instructional time already in their schedules.

Other schools funneled their dollars into before- or after-school programs. Memorial Middle School, in Orlando, Fla., now has a “zero” period at the start of the day, a time when students can come an hour early and work on reading and math skills using computer programs, or finish homework. The school also offers Saturday classes.

Still other schools have added time to the regular day — though sometimes not much. Weston Preparatory Academy, in Detroit, tacked 15 minutes onto its school day. West Seattle Elementary School in Washington state used its SIG grant to add four days to the school year and an extra 15 minutes every day.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh, 15 minutes, that’s nothing,’ ” said the Seattle school’s principal, Vicki Sacco. “But every moment counts.”

Paying Outsiders

Faced with the technical and logistical challenges of putting $3 billion in SIG money to use on a tight deadline, states have enlisted an array of consultants, including for-profit companies, nonprofit turnaround specialists and postsecondary institutions.

But tracking that cash — and determining whether schools have gotten their money’s worth — remains daunting. The federal government does not tally how private educational consultants have benefited from the turnaround windfall, nor do most states, according to an analysis published by The Denver Post in February. In about 15 states that agreed to tally such spending, an average of roughly 25 percent of all SIG money went to private consultants.

In Colorado — one of the few states willing to do such a tally — consultants took home $9.4 million, or 35 percent of the state’s $26.6 million in SIG money in the past two years. That’s paid for instructional coaches for teachers, leadership coaches for principals, analysts to pore over student data, and pricey professional-development seminars on changing school culture.

Even some contractors who offer services to SIG schools have raised alarm bells about the lack of accountability for outside groups.

“These schools require truly comprehensive services, from instructional to operational support,” said Jennifer Shea, a senior program manager at the School Turnaround Group, part of the Boston-based Mass Insight Education, which is working with six states on turnarounds. “Very few organizations currently have the capacity do this work. … I don’t think these types of providers necessarily have the wrong intentions, but we need stricter standards for how partners are being selected and monitored.”

The program has seen some well-publicized stumbles along the way. Several news organizations, for example, have looked at the experience of one consultant working in SIG schools in Colorado, the New York City-based Global Partnership Schools.

GPS was founded by Rudy Crew, a former head of the New York City and Miami school systems, and by Manuel Rivera, a former superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., schools. (Mr. Crew left the company last fall.) The company operates SIG schools in Baltimore; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Pueblo, Colo.

In Pueblo, for example, where GPS has a $7.4 million contract, student performance slipped further at five of the six schools the company operates, The Denver Post reported.

At the GPS-operated school in Baltimore, Garrison Middle School, nearly every indicator of quality has dropped since GPS took over in 2010, The Baltimore Sun found.

But GPS seems to have had much more success at Harding High School in Bridgeport, where early indicators, like attendance and school climate, have improved, according to staff and students, The Connecticut Mirror reported.

In an email to Education Week, Rivera said that turning around a school is a lengthy process, and that states shouldn’t expect big changes in student achievement overnight.

“Some of the most-respected researchers in America concur that transforming or turning around a chronically low-performing school is a multiyear process,” he stated.

States also have taken some steps to address provider quality. Fourteen states have offered districts an approved list of outside providers, according to the CEP survey of Title I directors.

And some states and districts are beginning to rework their relationships with consultants. Indiana is revisiting its approach after a number of school districts switched consultants or severed their relationships in favor of providing services in-house.

“We don’t want anything off the shelf from them,” said Jim Larson, the state’s director for school improvement and turnaround. “We want them to work for the schools. We’re asking, ‘How can you be an extra set of eyes in the classroom?’ Then we’re shaping the scope of their services around schools’ needs.”

In an April 11 report, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the Education Department failed to do enough to ensure that states and districts monitor the performance of contractors hired with SIG funds. The oversight office also recommended that the department do a better job of spelling out how states should make “evidence-based” decisions about whether to remove schools’ grants. The report found that among 23 of the 44 states responding to a GAO question about such decisions, most or all of the schools that had their funding renewed failed to meet annual goals.

In a formal response, Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, called the GAO report “incomplete and somewhat misleading.”  He agreed that the Education Department needs to do a better job of helping districts and states decide when to pull the plug on a grant. But he disagreed with the contention on contractors, saying that the department has made it clear that states and districts must monitor contractors’ performance.

Snyder, the Education Department’s SIG chief, said that districts have brought in outside providers to help with the “challenging work” of turning around schools.

The program “gives districts the flexibility, through a rigorous screening process, to seek outside help that will meet their local needs,” Snyder said. “And on the rare occasion that an external provider doesn’t work out, we have seen districts end that relationship and find another solution.”

Future in Doubt

Meanwhile, the turnaround program is on thin ice on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are sympathetic to those clamoring for greater local flexibility on turnarounds, including teachers unions, principals’ organizations, and advocates for district and state officials.

“We’re concerned that locking into a specific set of models might hinder innovation in the school-turnaround space,” said Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration has made its vision of the School Improvement Grant program — with its four signature models — a top priority in proposals to rewrite the NCLB law. But the headwinds are strong.

A U.S. Senate committee, as part of its push to overhaul that law, has approved a change that would let states come up with their own improvement strategies and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have sought to defund the program, and the House education committee recently approved a bill that would wipe it out entirely.

Even if the program survives, it seems likely that the nation’s lowest-performing schools will never see another turnaround bonanza like the stimulus law’s $3 billion in SIG money.

That has local officials already worrying about what may happen when the dollars disappear.

“The challenge for me is to create structures that will sustain over time, so when the money goes away, we can still do it,” said Lionel Jackson, Jr., principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts High, in Baltimore. “But the important question is: If this all goes away, can we keep up the momentum?”

This story was produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association. Additional reporting was contributed by Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, Brian Rosenthal of the Seattle Times, Nancy Mitchell of Ed News Colorado, Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun, Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun, Jennifer Jordan of the Providence Journal, Jennifer Brown of the Denver Post, Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star, Antoinette Konz of the (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, and Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press.

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”