Author Archives: Alex Spurrier

Post-Espinoza, It’s Time to Embrace More Pluralism

The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.

Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.

Schools from McKinley and Cibola Counties in NM gathered at the Cathedral for a Mass celebrated by Bishop James Wall.

Catholic school mass via Flickr user dioceseofgallup

The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.

Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area.  Continue reading

Adapting Schools to a New Normal With Decentralized Power

The scale, speed, and severity of the coronavirus crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen in our nation’s history. In a matter of a few weeks, schools across the country shut down and most won’t reopen their physical campuses this academic year. No school system was completely prepared for what seemed like a near-impossible challenge: shifting to a fully remote model of education while simultaneously coordinating key student support services and adapting to evolving public health guidelines amidst a global pandemic. 

We won’t know the full impact of the choices school leaders are making for quite some time, but some school systems may be better positioned than others to navigate the challenges posed by the current pandemic. School systems that already embrace more decentralized decision-making, either by supporting more autonomous district schools or charter schools, seem to be better adapting to the complex challenge of educating kids in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

empty office boardroom with laptop on meeting table

Image by Jo_Johnston from Pixabay

We’re starting to see educators take action – often without clear guidance from central offices – to use whatever tools they can to reach their students. We know that there are vast inequities in students’ access to education during this crisis, so some teachers have been handing out Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots. In other communities, teachers are using print packets, telephones, and television broadcasts to reach students without access to technology. There are countless stories of individual teachers moving faster than their districts’ central offices, meeting with their classes on Zoom, offering supplemental instruction from a student’s porch, or leaving math problems in chalk on students’ driveways

While it would be impossible and unreasonable to expect every teacher to figure out how to meet the needs of every student during this crisis, we’re also seeing how top-down decision-making by districts can go terribly wrong for teachers and students. One need look no further than affluent Fairfax County (VA), which had a disastrous roll-out of their virtual learning platform. Marred by poor planning, testing, and vendor management, it’s clear that whatever process Fairfax used to develop their plan, it wasn’t driven and tested by teachers.  Continue reading

If Your District is Losing Enrollment, Borrow Some Tools from Denver

As families make their school choices during the annual enrollment season this winter, there are a lot of unknowns for district leaders to manage. The size of the student population shouldn’t be one of them. When district student enrollment numbers drop, a whole community can find itself in a panic. School principals start worrying about potential cuts to their staff. District administrators start worrying about consolidating or closing schools. And if all this happens unexpectedly, then parents and students are the ones who suffer.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is at a similar crossroads: enrollment levels are in decline after a period of population boom, but their leaders are able to nimbly respond to enrollment changes due to a number of systems they have in place. Other city leaders take heed.

In most traditional districts, enrollment data isn’t used for a great deal of strategic decision-making, but thanks in part to Denver’s universal enrollment system and student-based school budgeting process, they have a much richer set of data to understand which schools and parts of the city are attracting (or losing) students. Leaders use this to aid in decision-making when it comes to high-stakes subjects like school creation, turnaround, or closure.

These tools also allowed Denver to grow quickly while improving student outcomes. As former DPS official and enrollment management expert Brian Eschbacher explained recently in The 74, during his seven years as the executive director of planning and enrollment services in Denver, he and his team could detect, assess, and respond to changes in student enrollment. Through their annual Strategic Regional Analysis process, DPS staff were able to understand what areas or programs were popular with families as well as where enrollment was beginning to wane. In both cases, it allowed district leaders to be more proactive in their decision-making based on a detailed understanding of enrollment trends. 

Understanding enrollment trend data is only the first step to managing declining enrollment: it needs to be paired with action that can help mitigate some of the negative effects of school closure decisions and provide high-quality options for students and families affected by those decisions. That could mean consolidating schools, as is happening with a Denver charter school, but it’s important that such dramatic steps are accompanied with supports for students and families. (My colleague Lynne Graziano recently wrote about how districts can help families navigate the school closure process.)

Better understanding of enrollment data can also help districts adjust course before such drastic actions need to be taken. Understanding what kinds of schools attract families can help districts shift their offerings to better align with what families want for their kids. One example of this can be found in Jeffco Public Schools (a district neighboring Denver), where they are turning a school that’s losing enrollment into a “classical school,” a model that’s been popular in neighboring communities. 

Leading a school district through declining enrollments is never easy, but the impact can be managed through smart leadership. If districts learn from and adopt Denver’s “detect, assess, respond” approach to enrollment trends, they’ll be better prepared to ensure that enrollment dips don’t lead to negative outcomes for kids and families.

Media: “On the Grandest Policy Stage — the State of the Union Address — Trump Signals Shift to Scaled-Down Education Ambitions” in The 74

Under previous administrations, K-12 policy segments of the State of the Union tended to focus on how the federal government would broadly shape the operation of public school systems in America. Last night, I thought that President Trump took a very different approach:

A good portion of the reaction to last night’s State of the Union is about a snubbed handshake and the tearing of a speech. While in recent years, the speech has certainly become a performative event full of partisan posturing, last night still signaled a subtle yet substantial shift in the presidential approach to K-12 education policy: President Trump indicated that his administration is more interested in incremental education measures than any administration in recent history.

Read more over at The 74.

What are Blaine Amendments and Why Might SCOTUS End Them?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, a case that could have massive consequences for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students across the country — and might even lead to changes in several state constitutions. 

United States Supreme Court Building by Joe Ravi, Wikimedia license CC-BY-SA 3.0

The case centers on three families participating in Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, a policy that gave tax credits to people who donated to scholarship organizations, organizations which could then help low-income students pay for private K-12 schools, including private religious schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue issued a rule stating that scholarships could not be used at religious schools, and later the Montana Supreme Court ruled that any aid to religious schools violated part of their state’s constitution, specifically a provision against public funding for “sectarian schools,” commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment.” Eighteen other states already have similar tax credit scholarship programs and 37 states have some form of Blaine Amendment. 

The three families, in partnership with the Institute for Justice, now have the chance to make their case before SCOTUS. The parents are arguing that their right to free expression of religion was violated by the ruling in Montana. The other side argues that funding any private school — religious or not — was unconstitutional at the state level and that overturning the state’s tax credit scholarship program did not lead to any violation of free expression. (SCOTUS started to define how state governments might provide funding to religious schools under the Constitution beginning in the 1970’s with Lemon v. Kurtzman and has been refined through subsequent cases, like Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer in 2017.) Continue reading