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The death of a school integration program

The big story

Pasadena, California high school

Almost three years ago, at the end of the Obama administration, dozens of school districts put together proposals to tackle school segregation in the hopes of winning federal funding.

Cities from Austin, Texas, to Wichita, Kansas, said they’d take steps to integrate their schools. They included modest ideas like starting community outreach and bolder plans like overhauling student assignment policies.

But just as the application deadline for this program passed, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as President Trump’s new education secretary. Federal education officials decided to ax the $12 million program launched under former Secretary John King, calling it “an unwise use of tax dollars.”

Since then, the integration plans from many of the school districts have gone nowhere, while only a handful have made meaningful strides. Experts say this shows the power that even small federal incentives can have to support the often politically difficult work of creating more racial and economic balance in schools.

In Austin, for example, the lack of funds and a change in school board leadership meant that goals for school integration eventually fell by the wayside.

“If they’d gotten the money, maybe they would have been more serious about it,” said one former school board member who’d championed Austin’s integration plan. “But as soon as they had to pay for it, and as soon as there are other priorities,” the commitment to integration faltered.

Read our full story about what happened to this program here. And check out our look at what 17 large and midsize school districts said they’d do with federal funding for school desegregation — plus an update on what they were able to accomplish without it.

Also from the national desk

How do American 15-year-olds stack up internationally? Not badly at all in science and English, where U.S. students performed above average on PISA, a widely cited international exam. But the U.S. continued to lag behind most other countries in math. There are reasons to take these scores seriously — they have been linked to economic growth — but researchers also warn against using them to figure out which policies are working or not.

Local stories to watch

  • New data lays bare glaring disparities in how much New York City schools are able to fundraise. A quarter of schools reported raising no money at all, while a handful of parent-teacher associations brought in more than $1,000 per student, according to data being reported after the city passed a fundraising disclosure measure. Some parents would like to see those funds centralized or shared, but others say the general underfunding of schools is the real problem.
  • Denver is changing its social studies curriculum to address concerns raised by a Native American principal.Until recently, eighth-grade students focused on the challenges faced by American settlers in the 1800s, but not what happened to Native Americans whose land was taken.  “As a Native employee, I keep feeling erased,” the principal said.
  • Over time, Chicago’s English learners are seeing similar academic gains as their peers whose first language is English. That’s according to new research that looked at the trajectory of the city’s students in bilingual education. But English learners who entered the bilingual program in kindergarten and fell behind by eighth grade tended to struggle with graduating from high school.
  • Michigan is working to get more students to apply for college financial aid after $100 million in federal funds went unspent last year. About half of high school seniors who graduated in the spring completed the necessary forms, but the state would like to raise that to three-quarters. To incentivize schools to raise their application rates, the governor is offering to speak at graduations or meet with students in person.

Research roundup

The number of people training to become teachers has dropped by one-third from 2010 to 2018, according to a new analysis from the Center For American Progress, a progressive think tank. The vast majority of states saw a decline, though nationally enrollment has stabilized — and even inched upward — since 2016. 

A number of factors may help explain the overall decline: the economic downturn, which led to widespread teacher layoffs; stagnant teacher pay; and evaluation systems that reduced real or perceived teacher job security. Report author Lisette Partelow argues that changes will require better data. “We need to know more in order to know who has shortages, where are they and what are the right policy solutions and levers for them,” she told U.S. News, which has more details on the study.

2020 vision

During a recent visit to a predominantly African-American church, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he’d been “slow to realize” that schools in his city were racially segregated. “I worked for years under the illusion that our schools … were integrated, because they had to be, because of a court order,” Buttigieg said. While that was “true within the limits of the South Bend Community School District, as they were drawn,” he continued, it wasn’t true in the rest of the county.

Some have pointed out that this statement isn’t completely accurate. South Bend’s school district has long struggled to meet the terms of a desegregation consent decree, and even today, a handful of South Bend schools are not in compliance with the racial balance targets that order sets. Buttigieg now says he wants to incentivize school desegregation with a $500 million grant fund.

Sen. Cory Booker released a plan to reduce child poverty, which he argued would also improve school performance.

Julián Castro released a plan to address hunger issues that says he would make meals free for every public school student and give students benefit cards to pay for food when they’re out of school during the summer. 

Six Democratic candidates have confirmed they will participate in a public education forum on Dec. 14 hosted by the country’s two largest teachers unions, the NAACP, and others. They include Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg. (Spokespeople for Andrew Yang, Booker and Castro said they wouldn’t appear due to scheduling conflicts.)

And finally, the National Education Association just released video interviews with six of the Democratic candidates about their education platforms.

DeVos watch

This week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the federal office that awards college financial aid is “broken” and in need of “fundamental transformation.” She is calling for the office to become its own federal agency “run by a professional, expert, and apolitical” board of governors. The New York Times reports that this is unlikely to come to fruition because it would require support from Congress, which doesn’t appear willing to make big changes to the system.

And in an interview with the editorial board of the Washington Examiner, DeVos listed cutting 600 staff positions from the Department of Education among her accomplishments as secretary.

What we’re reading

  • As the number of Latino students grows in Nashville schools, students are learning more about mariachi. WPLN
  • This counselor is trying to boost college-going rates among students who live in public housing. The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • A majority-black high school and one of its alumni — now a state representative — are at the center of the state takeover of Houston’s schools. New York Times

Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz/Getty Images

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