national newsletter

Discipline and discrimination debates in D.C.

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. Want to join us? We’re looking for a teammate — a second national reporter. More here.

The big story

Betsy DeVos was on the hot seat yesterday, defending the administration’s proposed budget cuts before Congress. She also fielded, but largely avoided, questions about school safety and racial discrimination in student discipline — two issues that have become linked in the wake of last month’s massacre in Florida.

Those discipline rules became a focus of another Congressional hearing Tuesday, where Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner falsely claimed that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on an Obama-era push to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservative media has circulated that idea for weeks, and it’s been promoted by other lawmakers. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place the year before the Obama administration’s guidance was issued.

DeVos, for her part, sidestepped specifics when grilled on racial discrimination in schools.

“You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions.” Rep. Barbara Lee asked. “Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?”

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” DeVos replied. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for DeVos. Her widely ridiculed “60 Minutes” interview was followed by a chilly reception at Stoneman Douglas High School, and she faced new backlash from teachers and state education leaders after two recent speeches. Education Week rounds up these incidents, which highlight a key struggle for a secretary who wants to use the bully pulpit to advance her causes. Doing so has sowed more backlash than support.

Left-leaning charter-school advocates appear to be getting more and more worried about DeVos. The latest sign: Peter Cunningham and Richard Whitmire called on her to resign in an op-ed in USA Today. “Surely even she can see the damage she is inflicting on the causes she holds dear,” they write. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Local stories to watch

  • A minimum wage bump at an historic moment. About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a plan announced as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.  
  • More small high schools created in the last decade may be on their way out. To save money, Detroit is considering merging some schools that now share buildings.
  • A close look at upcoming school board elections in Newark, where control of schools was recently returned to the city. Key players include the mayor, who crusaded against controversial changes to the school system, and the district’s large charter sector, which is hoping to flex its political muscle.
  • “Sex and the City” meets school funding. Cynthia Nixon’s bid for the New York governorship comes after more than a decade of advocacy for more education dollars in the state.

Matt’s research roundup

  • Neighborhood integration can mean school separation. The ability to opt out of the neighborhood school increases the likelihood that a mostly black or Hispanic neighborhood would see an influx of wealthier residents, new research shows.
  • Some black male teachers say they’re “disciplinarians first, teachers second.” That’s according to a new study focusing on the experiences of Boston educators. The study suggests black male teachers are assumed to be better equipped to handle discipline issues, particularly with black boys — though the teachers often see it differently. “I don’t think he was just gonna respond to me better than others because I’m me, or because I’m a male or because I’m black,” one teacher said. “I think because I sort of invested time … we’ve built a relationship.”
  • New evidence for “looping.” Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same elementary school teacher, a new study finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color. The average improvement is small, but it’s a policy that’s relatively cheap to implement and could affect a lot of students.
  • A nuanced look at master’s degrees for teachers. Past research has shown that having a master’s is not related to effectiveness. A recent study found that master’s degrees don’t seem to predict whether a teacher is more effective at raising students’ test scores. But having one did up the likelihood of earning a high evaluation score, if the graduate degree was in their area of teaching.

Portfolio push

A new role for a key leader: David Harris, the head of the an influential Indianapolis advocacy group the Mind Trust, is stepping down. The Mind Trust has become a model for other groups pushing the portfolio model for city schools across the country. Harris says he plans to start a new national organization to “help cities around the country build the right conditions for education change,” though he’s offered no details.

A flaw in the model? A new report argues that the assumption that school quality can be judged based largely on test scores is a big mistake. “Insofar as test scores are used to make determinations in ‘portfolio’ governance structures or are used to close (or expand) schools, policymakers might be making errors,” says the analysis, issued by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

The latest Denver debate. Denver is often held up as a success story by portfolio advocates. Locally, its record is hotly debated. The latest piece on the Denver Post’s editorial page concludes that schools have improved, but still have gaping “achievement gaps.” Big caveat, though: Raw trends in test scores are driven by many factors, and therefore can’t be used to judge specific policies, good or bad.

Names to note

Josh Thomases, the former dean of innovation at Bank Street College, is now the executive vice president at the Great Oaks Foundation. Robert Miller is the new head of the Omaha Education Association, after Bridget Donovan was fired. Stephen Osborn remains a finalist for the job of leading Tennessee’s school turnaround district. Ray Domanico, formerly of New York City’s Independent Budget Office, is the Manhattan Institute’s new director of education policy.

What we’re reading

  • Puerto Rico’s education system is officially headed for an overhaul. Three hundred schools may close under the plan, which would also create a voucher program. Education Week
  • A detailed account of the shooting at Maryland’s Great Mills High School on Tuesday. Baltimore Sun
  • Was the yearslong push to reform teacher evaluations a good thing? Researcher Matthew Kraft offers a list of the pros and cons. Education Week
  • Families may face barriers to exercising school choice, including knowing when or how to enroll and having information to choose among different schools. Brookings Institution
  • One of those barriers is transportation. In a few choice-heavy cities, black students travel farther than white or Hispanic students. U.S. News and World Report
  • San Antonio approved a contract to allow the Democracy Prep charter network to take over a school deemed low performing by the state. Texas Public Radio
  • The view from Oklahoma, where teachers say they’ll strike in April if lawmakers don’t increase pay — a move some superintendents are supporting. New York Times
  • Teachers at an Arizona elementary school called out sick today to protest for higher pay, too. Arizona Republic

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