Category Archives: State Education Policy

It’s Time to Stop Overlooking Juvenile Justice Education Policy

Just as juvenile justice education programs are commonly overlooked in mainstream educational equity conversations, they are also left behind in state education policy. The consequences for students are dire.

Juvenile justice education programs, as Bellwether Education Partners defines them, serve students in the court-ordered custody of a local or state agency. Settings can include short-term detention centers, long-term secure facilities, residential treatment centers, or other publicly and privately run facilities. The best estimates tell us that nearly a quarter of a million students were detained or committed to such facilities in 2019, where they had extremely limited access to education opportunities of all kinds including online learning, differentiated coursework, tutoring, dual-credit courses, career technical education, and work-based learning.

Our latest report finds that the governance, accountability, and finance policy designs are convoluted, inconsistent, and in some cases entirely absent in juvenile justice education programs. We reviewed state policy in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and uncovered what advocates have long suspected: a mess of dizzying policies, contradictory regulations, and exceedingly complex statutes. Despite the best efforts of well-meaning and devoted educators, these incoherent policies mean that the vast majority of juvenile justice education programs fall short of anything resembling a “school.”

Students in juvenile justice education programs are unlikely to be offered education opportunities aligned with their needs while locked up — and more often than not, they will never enroll in school again when they’re released. 

If state leaders structure policy reforms around coherence within and among these three policies (governance, accountability, and finance), they can meaningfully improve the education provided to students in their care.

Governance

Governance policies define who is responsible for providing (or ensuring the provision of) education services to youth in custody. In at least 26 states, the agency responsible for providing education services in local detention centers is not the same as the agency responsible for education in state-run facilities. In some states, one agency is responsible for providing direct instruction in a juvenile facility, while another agency controls the funding. In California, only youth detained or committed for offenses considered most serious or violent are held at the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice facility, which operates separately from facilities run locally by county boards of education. 

A class-action lawsuit from 2014 shows how inconsistent governance policies can lead to finger pointing and ultimately the abdication of responsibility for student learning. In Contra Costa County, California, the county probation agency was responsible for discipline policy but the county office of education was responsible for educational services. The two entities disagreed on who was responsible for education in restrictive security programs, leaving teachers unable to provide students in solitary confinement with the same modality, quantity, or quality of instruction as their peers. 

Even trying to find and confirm governance policies for our research illustrated the problem: we had to call numerous offices in individual states to cross check competing information. 

Accountability

Accountability policies determine how programs are evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering. In traditional districts, agencies use assessment and attendance data, teacher evaluations, school visits, and other data-collection strategies to ensure schools provide a high-quality education. Each education agency then defines the interventions that follow when a program does not meet expectations.

To measure school success, education agencies need to decide on their “measuring stick,” or the kind of data they will evaluate. While traditional educational policy conversations still grapple with these questions and acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, juvenile justice education programs are light years behind altogether.

Given the governance structures described above, it’s no surprise that juvenile justice education programs interact with many government agencies and are often required to submit data to offices with competing and incompatible goals, requirements, and processes.

Imagine this common reality: Mr. Dewan has students at a 9th-grade and 12th-grade level in his classroom. Some stay for a few days or weeks, while others stay for a few months — he never has the same group twice. Most of his students arrive without academic transcripts, so he relies on their recollection of past coursework and grades while awaiting prior records from any number of institutions. Over time, some students get shuffled to another facility without notice, while others attend a mandatory court date and never come back. Mr. Dewan doesn’t always know when a student has left the program, so he cannot plan for assessments in advance. The security or probation officers on staff periodically come in and remove a student from Mr. Dewan’s classroom, even when he has no concerns about safety. 

Having worked in and with such constraints, we respect how difficult it is to collect data, measure student and school success, and implement effective interventions. That said, a necessary component of any accountability system is defining how programs will be evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering for students. Our survey indicates that unlike nearly every other kind of education setting, most states have not defined in statute how juvenile justice education service providers are held accountable. 

Finance

Finance policies explain how states allocate funding to the agencies responsible for operating juvenile justice education programs. The people responsible for overseeing or operating these programs are best positioned to know where funding is needed the most. 

But our research shows that time and time again, the agency in control of finance is not the same as the one held accountable for results, creating a disincentive to allocate the resources necessary for high-quality programming. The greater the disconnect between finance and governance, the greater the chance that funding is not allocated for the right things. 

Beyond defining agency responsibility, there is little transparency about dollar amounts that actually make it to these educational programs. We know very little about how much states allocate for per-pupil funding in juvenile justice education programs. The reality is that students generally arrive at juvenile justice education programs lagging behind academically, in addition to potentially having significant unmet mental, behavioral, and physical health needs. State finance policies must take this reality into consideration and fund juvenile justice education programs accordingly. 

For this population of students, the stakes are too high not to get the fundamentals right. A child in the custody of a state agency is entrusted to the care of the government, creating a heightened moral responsibility (and arguably a legal one) for policymakers to provide that student with the highest-quality educational opportunities.

Read our new report here or view this resource to find out your specific state’s current policies. 

Lessons for Policymakers from Frustrated Parents

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

As another challenging school year winds down, parents are starting to reflect on what worked well for their child, what didn’t work well, and what their child needs to succeed in the school year ahead. Nationwide polling of parents indicates that while many parents say they’re generally satisfied with their children’s school, most are also concerned about their children’s academic progress and emotional well-being. Polling helps build an understanding of important parts of this story, but more detailed, nuanced information is needed to answer deeper questions about why parents are concerned and how they would like education leaders and/or policymakers to respond.  

In New Solutions for Frustrated Parents: How Education Leaders Can Help, we’re joined by Juliet Squire and Andy Rotherham in an examination of data from online parent journals conducted by Benenson Strategy Group earlier this year with 35 parents from across the country who expressed some frustration with their children’s experience with schooling during the pandemic. While we caution against over-interpreting the lessons from such a small sample size, it does provide key insights into how parents think about their children’s education and what they want moving forward. 

Parents’ open-ended responses in the online journals provide more visibility into the specific pain points they encounter in K-12 schooling. For instance, parents identified challenges around a lack of communication from their child’s school or a lack of personalized education. The journals also provide insight into why parents may be hesitant to change their child’s educational setting, even though they have frustrations with their child’s current school. Parents expressed concerns about the many uncertainties involved in switching schools as well as identified barriers to making those changes such as cost or transportation.  

These insights should help policymakers and education leaders shape policy to respond to the needs of parents in this moment. Our report offers several recommendations:  

  • Work with parents to better understand their needs: Policymakers and education leaders must increase efforts to reach out to families to better understand their needs.  
  • Increase the number of educational options available to families: Policymakers should provide families with educational options both during and beyond the regular school day. These options, in addition to school choice, should include more flexible and supplemental learning options like after-school programs, tutoring, and summer activities.  
  • Inform families about educational options that could meet their child’s needs: Policymakers and advocates should redouble their efforts to provide families with clear, reliable information to better inform their education decision-making. 
  • Reduce barriers to access: Policymakers should work with parents to identify barriers to educational opportunities in their communities and tailor solutions to mitigate or eliminate them. 

Policymakers don’t have to start this work from square one — our report identifies organizations that are already making progress on these fronts. This includes A for Arizona’s work to reduce transportation barriers and National Parents Union’s work to amplify parent voices.   

By listening to, elevating, and supporting the priorities and needs of parents, policymakers and education leaders can ensure that kids across this country are able to get what they need to succeed in the upcoming school year and beyond.  

Updating Data Systems is a Critical Piece of State-Improved ESSA Plans

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

For the last two years, state-level Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans ​​— which provide critical information about student achievement and school culture — have either been modified or essentially on pause due to COVID-19-related school closures. From canceling statewide assessments to variability in how attendance was taken, the lack of high-quality and reliable data made it difficult for states to follow their original ESSA accountability plans. 

However, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) signaled that states must restart ESSA accountability plans and identify their lowest-performing schools in fall 2022. Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools’ and states’ ability to use indicators like test score growth and attendance, the DOE guidance specified that states can make one-year or longer-term changes to their accountability plans. The guidance also noted that in fall 2022 states’ Report Cards must contain all the data as required under ESSA, including for the 2021-22 school year (e.g., access to advanced coursework, suspension rates, math and reading proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and per-pupil school funding).  

These may seem like easy tasks since states already developed and implemented ESSA accountability plans and report cards. However, not all state data systems are created equal. Prior to the pandemic, Washington, D.C. and all 50 states were missing at least one data point required under ESSA. Furthermore, many ESSA accountability plans used inconsistent data and methodology to identify schools for support — particularly as it relates to English language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students. A 2017 Bellwether analysis found that only 10 of 51 ESSA plans indicated they would incorporate student subgroup performance into rating and identifying schools for support. And, of those 10 only three — Louisiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee — provided data and information about what that would mean in practice. The other states provided broad assurances. 

Whether because of antiquated data systems, underfunding, or a lack of political will to use certain metrics, these gaps in state-level ESSA accountability data are problematic. They leave huge voids in understanding how students are doing, what’s working, and which students need support, and also hinder a state’s ability to engage in effective short- and long-term planning. 

And the problem persists over time. A 2021 analysis found that many states still don’t report on mandated metrics like participation in advanced coursework, teacher credentials, per-pupil school spending, and chronic absenteeism. Nearly 25% of states don’t include spring 2021 assessment data on their Report Cards. 

Given the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the U.S. K-12 education system, it’s critical that states step up. We need intentional, collaborative, and thoughtful planning in order to address everything from unfinished learning to student disengagement. But this can only be done if states have access to comprehensive data that is accurate, transparent, and current. 

States are in an optimal position to invest in data system upgrades and state report cards as they rethink accountability plans. Although this kind of infrastructure investment might seem like a lesser priority, schools’ access to accurate and updated data is critical and a cost-effective investment that pays dividends in the long run. Through three major COVID-19 federal stimulus packages, state departments of education received billions of dollars to help with pandemic recovery which can include updating data systems. A May 2021 DOE FAQ gave permission and encouraged states to use COVID-19 American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars to improve their data systems. 

Many states are taking advantage of the federal funding. A June 2021 analysis found that 29 states designated some money to improve data systems and analysis capacity to better support students. For example:

  • Arkansas is using ARP dollars to launch SmartData Dashboards, an automated early warning and intervention dashboard that will help districts identify students who are off-track from graduation and implement the appropriate interventions. 
  • Connecticut is using ESSER funds to establish the COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative — a partnership with researchers from the University of Connecticut and other state universities, local representatives, and educators. The Collaborative is a long-term investment that utilizes statewide data to track the efficacy of programs and provide accurate information to the public. 
  • Minnesota is investing $6 million in ARP dollars to update Ed-Fi, a new statewide data system that will consolidate multiple data systems into one. This will allow the state to track student data in a more timely manner and identify trends in student experiences and outcomes. 
  • Missouri is using $4.3 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act dollars to update its 15-year-old longitudinal data system, which will increase its capacity to collect and analyze data on individual students. 

These state-level data improvements are a step in the right direction. However, it’s critical that data system upgrades and accountability plans center all students’ needs — particularly for historically marginalized student populations. The federal funding and policy window is there to pave the way. Will states seize the opportunity?

Three Ways to Improve Education Finance Equity in the Southeast for English Learners

English learners (ELs) are an incredibly diverse group of students, representing about 400 languages spoken, and a wide range of ages and fluency in English. As EL enrollment in U.S. K-12 public schools grows, education systems must keep up with these students’ unique learning needs. EL language proficiency, length of time spent in U.S. public schools, age, and grade level are all factors that affect learning needs and the amount of funding required to meet those needs. But, a commitment to equitable funding for EL students is too often missing or minimal in state education funding formulas.  

This commitment is especially needed in the Southeast where ELs make up approximately 15% of the U.S. EL population, growing from 657,612 students in 2015 to 713,245 students in 2019. The number of ELs enrolled in the public school system in the South is rapidly increasing. Between 2000 and 2018, South Carolina experienced a more than a nine-fold increase in EL student enrollment — a rate of growth that is 24 times higher than the national average. Despite this increase in enrollment, the resources available to EL students in the Southeast have not kept up with students’ needs. 

In Improving Education Finance Equity for English Learners in the Southeast, Bonnie O’Keefe and I examine state funding systems for EL students across nine Southeastern states ​​— Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — and offer a set of three key policy recommendations for how states can better support EL students.

  1. State funding formulas should move toward weighted, student-based systems with multiple EL weights. EL students with greater needs must receive more funding support through state funding formulas. For states that already have a weighted, student-based funding formula, policymakers should consider how to differentiate among a diverse array of EL needs. 
  2. The federal government should increase Title III funding of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While increasing EL allocations at the state level holds the most promise for meeting the needs of EL students, federal funding has plateaued in recent years. Federal commitments must also keep up with the growing enrollment of EL students in the Southeast region and across the country. 
  3. State education agencies and the federal government should improve transparency of EL data. Although ESSA mandated annual reports of school-level spending, policymakers should increase the level of publicly available state and district data about funding for EL students. 

The region has an opportunity to be a national leader in providing more funding for EL students that is aligned to their unique learning needs. Tennessee and South Carolina are already considering funding reform proposals this spring, and there is room for other states in the region to follow suit and consider proposals to increase the resources available to EL students. Our analysis finds that just two states in the Southeast region — Florida and South Carolina — incorporate EL student weights in their funding formula. 

States have a federal obligation to ensure that EL students receive a high-quality education that allows them to meet their full potential. Although there are bright spots in many of the nine states we examined, more work must be done by policymakers to elevate the needs of EL students in the Southeast. 

Improving Education Finance Equity for English Learners in the Southeast is part of an ongoing Bellwether examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. 

During 2022 State Legislative Sessions, Keep an Eye on Education Finance Equity

To bolster efforts to improve state education funding systems, Bellwether Education Partners compiled a series of policy briefs that gives advocates a crash course on the fundamentals of education finance equity as well as key questions to ask in their states and communities. These briefs are timely, as several states have already signaled that education finance will be a major policy issue during 2022 legislative sessions: 

In addition to the potential legislative changes, ongoing litigation in North Carolina and Pennsylvania courts could lead to substantive changes in education funding. The legislative and court considerations around education finance are not only timely, but necessary. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of state funding formulas made attempts at equity for lower-wealth communities and students with greater needs, but too many were falling short. Whether not fully accounting for differences in student learning needs or using outdated methods to account for local tax revenue, these inequities translated into real consequences for kids. Recent research shows that more funding can improve student achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollment — particularly for low-income students. 

This research is particularly germane given the growing evidence of the severity of learning loss that students — especially students of color, low-income students, and students at key milestones (e.g., third-grade reading) — experienced during the pandemic. If states are serious about addressing unfinished learning and ensuring that all students leave their systems prepared for college and career, it starts with equitable funding. 

What would an equitable state education funding formula look like? It would start with a generous base amount for every student, and then additional weight would be given for students with disabilities, ELLs, students in rural communities, and low-income students. This is known as a student-weighted funding formula. The specifics should vary based on the particular equity considerations of each states’ students and communities. This type of system can ensure that students are receiving funding based on their needs, rather than on how much property wealth their community has. 

State Spotlight: Minnesota

During the 2021 Minnesota legislative session, state advocates heard some version of, “given recent federal COVID-19 relief funds based on low-income students, tackling state funding right now just isn’t a priority.” Representatives and senators from both parties used this talking point as a rationale for not taking legislative action to make the state’s education finance system more equitable. This type of thinking is not only short-sighted, but it does a disservice to Minnesota’s most underserved students. 

It’s true that the federal government passed three stimulus packages that dispersed $189 billion to state departments of education and school districts across the country. Although these temporary funds don’t address the systemic inequities that are baked into state education funding formulas, they do present a policy opportunity. With budgetary pressures somewhat relieved, states should use this moment to revamp their education finance formulas with students at the center. 

But instead of fixing the state’s funding formulas for students with disabilities, ELLs, and low-income students — which includes overly complicated caps and combinations of concentration and weights — the Minnesota legislature did nothing. This translates to another school year without equitable funding for Minnesota’s most marginalized students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  

It’s promising to see so many states tackle education finance during 2022 legislative sessions. As the legislative session continues, states must keep underserved students at the center and wade through the politics to pass bills that will create more equitable school funding systems. Time will tell if this comes to fruition.  

*Editor’s note: The Tennessee Department of Education is a Bellwether client.