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Unmaking the rules

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Matt Barnum, Sarah Darville, and intern Amanda Zhou here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. Did someone forward this to you? You can sign up here.


The big story

So many of the crucial decisions affecting education are made at the state and local level. But one way the federal education department can exert its influence is through the guidance it offers and rules it makes — and in the last week, two controversial Obama-era changes got the axe.

The first was the delay of regulations designed to stop the overidentification of students of color as having a disability. Civil rights groups have argued that this is a crucial protection, but Secretary Betsy DeVos suggested that the rule could make it harder for kids of color to get needed services. Here, she’s got some research on her side: recent studies have shown that far from being overidentified for special education, students of color too often are underidentified. This point, though, remains debated among scholars.

The second was the removal of Obama-era guidance that provided a roadmap for how districts could consider students’ race — under limited circumstances — to promote school integration.

Few school districts actually do that, and the removal of the document doesn’t have the force of law. But it does send a signal to districts that they won’t be getting federal support for those integration efforts. “The Department of Education strongly encourages the use of race-neutral methods for assigning students to elementary and secondary schools,” reads the Bush-era letter that effectively replaces the Obama guidance.

The changes are part of DeVos effort to loosen federal oversight of education, a key priority of conservatives and an area where she’s been successful, even if she has been ineffective to date at promoting school choice initiatives from a federal perch.

Meanwhile, there’s one closely watched area where DeVos has not yet moved on: an Obama administration directive designed to limit suspensions and expulsions, which are disproportionately meted out to black students and those with disabilities.

Both sides of the debate are on high alert. Conservative advocates and some teachers have released a flurry of recent op-eds arguing that the policy has made schools less safe, such as this one published Monday. Civil rights groups and other teachers have just as steadfastly defended the guidance, including in a recent letter, as necessary to protect against discrimination.

DeVos has met with both sides of the debate, and a decision is forthcoming, but it’s not clear when.


Local stories to watch

  • Oakland as a window into national school reform debates. The school district just passed a controversial policy that may lead to more coordination with the city’s large charter sector. The debate hinged on issues that have emerged all over the country: divides within the charter community, questions about school closures, criticism of the influence of philanthropies, and the threat of a state takeover.
  • The Detroit ‘right to literacy’ case might not be over. The attorney representing seven students, parents, and teachers who accused the state of violating their right to access to literacy will repeal a federal judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit.
  • Newark’s controversial unified enrollment system is here to stay. The district’s new superintendent is supporting the district-charter system that some school board members have criticized.
  • Can childcare support boost a local workforce? An Indiana mayor is pushing for expanding pre-kindergarten programs to help improve the region’s economy.
  • Detroit will hire teachers with minimal classroom experience. The decision has sparked debate but the superintendent says the city’s teacher shortage means the district must consider all options.

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Matt and Amanda’s research round-up

  • It’s possible to address lead poisoning in children, which will help them in school. Lead exposure has all sorts of bad effects on children. A recent study shows that something can be done about it. In Charlotte, North Carolina, kids with high levels of lead in the blood benefitted from a package of services, including doctors visits, and nutritional help. Those students scored higher on tests and were much less likely to be suspended, absent from school, or arrested for a violent crime than other students with similarly high levels of lead who didn’t get services.
  • Suspensions really do hurt student outcomes. That may not sound surprising — research has long found that students who get suspended are more likely to have lower test scores and drop out of school. But researchers have struggled to show whether suspensions actually cause worse outcomes. A new study in New York City takes a step in that direction by comparing pass rates in semesters when students are and aren’t suspended. It shows that suspensions seem to lead to a small uptick in the likelihood that a student fails a course.
  • Private schools don’t offer students a boost, according to a new study. At first glance, this paper finds, private school students in a number of cities have higher test scores and an advantage on several other metrics. But after controlling for demographics, that edge largely vanishes. That’s largely in line with research on private-school voucher programs, at least when it comes to test scores. Keep in mind though that this study uses fairly old data, has a small sample size, and doesn’t use a school lottery to be able to definitively show cause and effect.

Names to note

Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court; Politico and The 74 have rundowns of his record on education issues.

Jim Shelton is leaving as head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education work, though he’ll remain an advisor to the group; April Chou will replace him on an interim basis.

The American Federation of Teachers conference later this week will feature big names: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. AFT President Randi Weingarten will give a speech entitled “Hope in Darkness.”

The National Education Association also recently held its national gathering. Education Week and The Intercept covered the event and spoke to NEA leader Lily Eskelsen García.

The Newark school board released the names of the 31 officials who were pushed out by the city’s new superintendent.

Laura Perille, previously head of the nonprofit EdVestors, was appointed interim superintendent of Boston Public Schools.

Paul Egly, a judge who oversaw the court-mandated integration of Los Angeles’ schools in the 1970s, died late last month.

Former New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera is starting a new group called Pathway 2 Tomorrow.


DeVos watch

The education secretary visited Toledo, Ohio where she observed high school equivalency classes at the county jail and where protesters greeted her outside. Toledo’s union president expressed disappointment that neither the union nor the public school district were notified.

After two rejections, the California Board of Education is hoping that its plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act will get DeVos’s stamp of approval. Only four other states have not yet had their plans approved by DeVos.


What we’re reading

  • Here’s why it takes a long time to close a charter school in Philadelphia. Philly Inquirer
  • Some fear that Justice Kennedy’s retirement could lead the Supreme Court to revisit a case guaranteeing a public education to children of unauthorized immigrants. Slate
  • Amid political setbacks and some disappointing results, where should education reform go from here? One advocate offers answers. Medium
  • The number of AFT members running for office this year is double what it was in 2016. Politico
  • Puerto Rico’s new school voucher program and certain charter schools were ruled unconstitutional by a local court. The government plans to appeal. Education Week
  • New Orleans schools are officially back under local control, and the board has a completely revamped role: overseeing the city’s charter schools. The Advocate
  • How tech money and big promises, without adequate planning or leadership, led to disaster at a San Francisco middle school. Wired
  • There’s increased enthusiasm for improving curriculum in schools. Here’s why that might be challenging. Brookings Institution
  • Indianapolis’s effort to create public housing for teachers is off to a rocky start. Indiana Public Media
  • A commission investigating the Parkland shooting says the Broward district’s much-maligned discipline program was flawed, but had nothing to do with the shooting. Sun Sentinel
  • Facing a funding crunch, rural districts in Texas are increasingly adding programs by asking local universities for help. Texas Observer