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How could Congress help integrate schools?

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Matt Barnum, Kalyn Belsha, and Sarah Darville here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. 

The big story

She rode the bus to school as part of a school desegregation effort. He opposed busing as a means to achieve integration.

Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden sparring on the Democratic presidential debate stage has pushed school desegregation efforts of the past back into the national spotlight. It’s also raised a different, important question: If you care about desegregating schools now, what should happen?

That’s elevated the profile of a piece of legislation that could serve as a road map for federal involvement in school desegregation today, given the many limitations put in place by the Supreme Court.

The Strength in Diversity Act would create a federal grant program to fund racial and economic school desegregation efforts across the country. School districts could use the money to study and plan for integration, hire and train teachers, or pay for specialized programs and buildings. One expert in school segregation likened the bill to “a glass of water in a desert of policy in this area.” 

The program is relatively modest — lawmakers have floated $120 million in the past — and school districts would have to opt in. But advocates say the legislation signals that the federal government can, and should, play a larger role in encouraging school integration. So far, three presidential candidates have signed on as co-sponsors: Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Harris.

Read more about the proposal here

Also from the national desk

EdBuild, an organization that has fueled discussion about school funding disparities and segregation, is planning to close its doors by the end of next year. Its founder says that despite its success raising the profile of those issues, the organization struggled to work directly with states to improve their funding formulas. 

Randi Weingarten was ebullient in a speech last week at an AFT conference. “Remember the false narrative about public schools a decade ago — about so-called bad teachers, failing students, and a system supposedly so broken that privatization and austerity were the only answers? We’ve busted up those myths, one by one,” she said. Read more from the speech — and also why the union can hardly claim total victory.

Local stories to watch

  • Tennessee opened a turnaround district seven years ago, but the state’s low-performing students haven’t seen large gains. Several charter operators pulled out of the district, and the bipartisan support that once existed for the district may be waning. Those challenges aren’t unique — other states that launched takeover districts have had similar problems finding and keeping charter operators or have abandoned the model altogether.
  • Indiana has cut off public funding for two virtual charter schools. That’s because the state is trying to recoup the $47 million it paid the schools for students kept on the rolls even though they were inactive or had moved out of state. 
  • Tennessee’s governor is planning to launch the state’s controversial voucher program a year early. That means students and their families would have access to education savings accounts as soon as next summer. The governor has said there are enough funds to make the change, but opponents say a faster rollout could increase the risk that funds would be used fraudulently.
  • Michigan’s governor might reshape how the state approaches struggling schools. As a candidate, the governor promised to eliminate Michigan’s emergency management law, which has disproportionately affected the state’s black residents. Now, observers are watching to see if she will appoint an emergency manager or take a different approach in Benton Harbor, the majority-black city where she recently tried to close a struggling high school. 

Research roundup

Money for schools buys better results in Texas. A newly published study adds to the large body of research showing benefits of additional education spending. Taking advantage of a quirk in Texas’s funding formula, researchers found that extra money boosted test scores and high school and college completion rates — especially in predominantly low-income, Hispanic districts. For instance, an extra $1,000 in per-pupil spending starting in third grade increased college completion rates by 4 percentage points. 

Boston charter schools help English language learners, students with disabilities, according to updated research. Winning a random lottery to attend one of the city’s charter schools boosted students’ with disabilities chances of completing college within four years — from 9% to 21%. College enrollment for English language learners jumped from 55% to 80% as a result of attending a charter (though there isn’t enough yet data on college completion). Interestingly, these gains came even though the charters caused declines in four-year high school graduation rates for those students. The charters also boosted college enrollment for general education students, but there was no effect on completion within four years of high school.

Young children learn less through video, according to a new study. The paper compared different methods of teaching a toddler the meaning of a new word. While toddlers tended to learn when taught in person, they didn’t when taught through a recorded video or live video chat. 

DeVos watch

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is in Raleigh today trying to drum up support for her long-shot proposed federal tax credit for school vouchers, the Education Freedom Scholarship. 

House lawmakers are looking further into DeVos’ use of personal email accounts. An internal report earlier this year found that the practice was not “active or extensive.”

A lengthy profile of DeVos in Bloomberg Businessweek focuses on her rollback of Obama-era regulations. 

2020 vision

If elected president, Elizabeth Warren won’t seek additional federal funding for charter schools, a spokesperson told the American Prospect

The New York Times has continued the excavation of Joe Biden’s record opposing court-ordered desegregation through busing. Biden became the “Democratic Party’s leading anti-busing crusader — a position that put him in league with Southern segregationists, at odds with liberal Republicans and helped change the dynamic of the Senate, turning even some leaders in his own party against busing as a desegregation tool.”

Biden’s campaign said recently that he supports a push to eliminate the ban on using federal funding on transportation for school integration. 

Cory Booker’s brother, Cary, has come under scrutiny for his work in education. Cary Booker started a Tennessee charter school that was eventually forced to close; now he has a job with the state of New Jersey’s Division of Early Childhood Education. 

Names to note

The Campaign for School Equity, a Memphis group that spun off from the Black Alliance for Educational Options, is shutting down.

Former Obama education official and Education Post founder Peter Cunningham is joining John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign.

A.J. Duffy, former president of the Los Angeles teachers union, passed away.

In a surprise move, MaryEllen Elia is stepping down at New York State education commissioner. Beth Berlin will replace her as acting commissioner.

Frances Gallo, who drew national attention in 2010 for attempting to fire the entire teaching force of a high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, was named interim school superintendent of the embattled Providence Public Schools.

The superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, Clayton Wilcox, has been suspended with pay, putting the district in a leadership crisis for the second time in less than five years.

Nine candidates are vying for an Atlanta school board seat in a special election which could determine the direction of the district.

What we’re reading

  • Oklahoma officials say the state’s largest virtual charter school inflated enrollment — and state funding — by counting “ghost students.” (Sound familiar?) The Oklahoman 
  • After a damning report on the schools in Providence, local leaders are discussing whether charters, including the high-performing Achievement First network, should expand. Boston Globe 
  • Charter and private school choice advocates are being drawn together by what they see as attacks on charter schools — but disagree on what “accountability” means, according to a blog post from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 

Photo by Michael Noble, Jr. for The Washington Post via Getty Images 

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