Florida expands education savings account (ESA) program

On March 27, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a measure that expands the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program. The expanded program will provide K-12 students with around $7,500 for educational expenses outside of the public school system, including private school tuition, tutoring, and homeschooling expenses. 

The Family Empowerment Scholarship was created in 2014 and provides eligible students — such as those with disabilities or from low-income families — with funding to defray private school tuition or tutoring costs.

The expanded program focuses on students from low-income families and will allow all K-12 students to apply, provided they do not attend public schools. 

Florida is the fourth state in 2023 to expand its existing ESA program to cover all students. Utah, Iowa, and Arkansas did so as well. Arizona and West Virginia expanded their ESA programs to all students in 2022.

Five other states — Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and North Carolina — restrict eligibility to their Education Savings Account programs. 

Six states with universal ESA programs have Republican governors, while one — Arizona — has a Democratic governor. Of the states that restrict eligibility to their ESA programs, three have Republican governors, while one — North Carolina — has a Democratic one.

Other states have more limited programs that allow eligible students to attend private schools. According to Notre Dame law professor Nicole Stelle Garnett, “Thirty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have one or more private-school-choice programs, which this year enable more than 700,000 children to attend a private school.”

Florida’s new law also eases requirements for some types of teaching certificates. DeSantis said, “parents are going to be able to have the ability to get money for their student for their child, and they can do tuition, they’re also going to be able to use it for things like tutoring and other things that can be very important for a child’s development and well being.”

The House passed the legislation 83-27 on March 17, with 79 Republicans and four Democrats voting in favor. No Republicans opposed the bill, while nine representatives did not vote. Republicans have an 84-35 majority in the House.

The Senate passed the bill 26-12 along partisan lines (two Republicans were absent) on March 23. Republicans hold a 28-12 majority in the Senate. 

Critics said the law will redirect funding from public schools and benefit wealthier households, who may already send their children to private schools. Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said, “The universal voucher bill signed today by Gov. DeSantis will drain billions of taxpayer dollars away from the neighborhood public schools that nearly 90 percent of Florida’s parents trust to educate their children.”

State Sen. Corey Simon (R), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said, “This legislation is a transformational opportunity to make it clear that the money follows the child, and parents have a right to guide their child’s education as they see fit.”

Florida’s new law takes effect July 1.

Connecticut announces plan to develop Native American studies curriculum for K-12 public schools

Governor Ned Lamont (D) and the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) announced a partnership with state tribal leaders on November 30, 2022, to develop a Native American studies model curriculum for K-12 students. The announcement follows legislation signed by the governor in June 2021. The bill established new subject matter requirements, including a requirement to establish a model curriculum for Native American studies to be implemented by the 2023-2024 school year, according to Senate Bill No. 1202. 

The curriculum aims to educate students on “the study of Native American tribes in Connecticut, including Northeastern Woodland tribes” and highlight indigenous voices in the curriculum development process, according to a press release from the Office of the Governor. The state Department of Education is responsible for developing curriculum guides to assist teachers with developing instructional materials that adhere to state standards.   

Governor Lamont released a statement that said, “Connecticut students deserve to have inclusive and accurate history lessons.” Lamont continued, “This curriculum is an important part of acknowledging our past and historical connections with our tribal nations. We are going beyond acknowledgment by building meaningful relationships with our tribal leaders and this curriculum effort is a prime example of that.”

CSDE plans to release the model curriculum in June 2023. 

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Virginia education agency proposes new history standards in public schools

The Virginia Department of Education proposed new standards on November 11, 2022, that aim to provide guidance to the state’s public schools on the Glenn Youngkin administration’s (R) preferred approaches to teaching Virginia and U.S. history. 

Every seven years, the Virginia Department of Education is required to update its History and Social Science Standards of Learning (SOL). Former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s administration had proposed its own history guidelines, which required schools to provide the following instruction:

  1. Teach lessons on the LGTBQ+ community and social justice
  2. Teach lessons on racism and discrimination
  3. Recognize holidays like Juneteenth
  4. Teach lessons on climate defense and renewable energy
  5. Halt the requirement of teaching some lessons on Christopher Columbus and Benjamin Franklin
  6. End the requirement of understanding why George Washington is called the “Father of our Country” and why James Madison is called the “Father of the Constitution.”

The Youngkin administration departs from the former administration’s proposed history standards by mandating the following lessons:

  1. Teach lessons for kindergarteners on patriotism, which includes pledging allegiance to the American flag
  2. Teach first grade students to learn critical thinking skills 
  3. Teach fourth grade students to be able to describe the Civil Rights movement in Virginia, why James Madison is called the “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” and why George Washington is called the “Father of our Country” 
  4. Teach fourth grade students about Reconstruction and the Civil War
  5. Teach eleventh grade students about Christopher Columbus and the race-based enslavement of Africans

Opponents of the proposed plan by the Youngkin administration argue it is politically motivated. “It’s just another attack on trying to make history what they want it to be,” argued James Fedderman, President of the Virginia Education Association.

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said that the intention of the policy is to have all students “engaged in fact-based and inquiry-based instruction throughout their education in an age-appropriate way,” according to the Virginia Mercury.

After delaying an August vote on the proposal until November, the Virginia State Board of Education voted 8-0 on November 17, 2022, to further delay the SOL review process until 2023. 

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Six states sue Biden administration over student loan forgiveness plan

Six states filed a joint lawsuit against the Biden administration on September 29 to block the federal government’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 of federal student loans per person. The states allege the administration overstepped its executive authority and was “not remotely tailored to address the effects of the pandemic on federal student loan borrowers.” The states also argued that the Department of Education was legally required to collect student loans and could not stop collecting without congressional approval.

The lawsuit, led by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, alleged that four of the states (Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Carolina) were harmed by the policy because they could not collect taxes on the loan relief. It also alleged that Missouri would lose revenue from loans it owned through the Federal Family Education Loan Program.

Of the six states, five have Republican trifectas and one (Kansas) has a divided government. All of the states except Iowa have Republican attorneys general.

If the forgiveness plan survives court challenges, it will cancel $10,000 in student loan debt per person for individual tax filers making less than $125,000 or married filers with less than $250,000 in income. Pell Grant recipients are eligible to have an additional $10,000 forgiven under the plan.

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Virginia education agency proposes policies to clarify approaches to transgender students in public schools

The Virginia Department of Education proposed new policies on September 16, 2022, that aim to provide guidance to the state’s public schools on the Youngkin administration’s preferred approaches to transgender students. 

The new policies depart from former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s administration guidelines, which encouraged schools to let students use names and pronouns aligning with their gender identity without formal documentation. Titled 2022 Model Policies On The Privacy, Dignity, And Respect For All Students And Parents In Virginia’s Public Schools, the new education policy mandate the following approaches:

  • Transgender students must use the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their assigned sex at birth
  • The legal name and sex of a student cannot be changed even with written instruction from a parent or student unless official legal documentation or a court order is presented
  • Teachers and school officials are only allowed to refer to a student by the pronouns associated with their sex at birth
  • Teachers are not required to use a student’s preferred name regardless of written instruction if they believe doing so would violate their constitutionally protected rights

The Virginia Department of Education stated that the policy “reaffirms the rights of parents to determine how their children will be raised and educated. Empowering parents is not only a fundamental right, but it is essential to improving outcomes for all children in Virginia.”

In response to the policy proposal, Mike Mullin, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates, tweeted, “Trans kids deserve to learn and thrive in an environment free of bullying, intimidation, and fear. That means being addressed as who they are and supported for who they will be. Especially from their teachers and their administrators.”

The general public will be allowed to comment on the proposed policy using the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall website. 

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Hillsborough County School Board approves sex education curriculum for seventh, eighth, and ninth grade

The Hillsborough County School Board in Florida approved new sex education curriculum for seventh, eighth, and ninth-grade students on September 20, 2022. The curriculum has been the subject of debate as parents and teachers have spoken publicly in favor of and in opposition to the proposed materials. The curriculum aims to provide “consistent and medically accurate information when it comes to reproductive health and disease prevention.”  

Local district school boards are responsible for developing curriculum and instructional materials for educators in the district to follow. Parents who oppose the sex education curriculum can opt their children out of the included lessons.    

Erin Maloney, Hillsborough County School District Director of Media and Public Relations, said, “The curriculum for the 2022-2023 school year was developed in accordance with new legislation, Board policy, and state standards.” Maloney continued, “Our district promotes abstinence as the first expected standard while also teaching them about healthy decision-making skills. Our curriculum fosters communication with parents and guardians to help continue the conversation at home,” according to Bay News 9

Parents and grandparents with the Protect our Children Project and Moms for Liberty have opposed the curriculum. A member of the group, Terry Kemple, said, “When these kids are presented particularly with sexual concepts that they’re not familiar with, they’re not going to ask their buddies because their buddies will laugh at them, what they’re gonna do is go online, then they’re going to find information that their parents certainly would not want them finding. So bringing these concepts in at this stage of a kids development is inappropriate,” according to Bay News 9

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Pilot program for New York City’s Asian American and Pacific Islander history curriculum launches for the 2022-2023 school year

A pilot program of New York City’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history curriculum was launched in select schools in September 2022. The New York City Department of Education announced in May 2022 that it had developed the curriculum, titled the Hidden Voices Project, in partnership with the Museum of the City of New York. The new curriculum will be widely implemented throughout the city in 2024 for all grades. 

The curriculum aims to teach students to “learn about and honor the innumerable people, often ‘hidden’ from the traditional historical record, who have shaped and continue to shape our history and identity.” K-12 curriculum guides for the Hidden Voices Project are available on the NYC Department of Education website to assist teachers with implementing the new area of instruction. 

David Banks, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, said, “We want each child to be heard and seen for who they are, to feel deep in their bones that they are respected and important,” according to Chalkbeat New York.  

State Sen. John Liu (D) has introduced legislation that, if passed, would require all New York public schools to include Asian American history in K-12 curriculum.  

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Virginia Board of Education postpones public hearings for proposed history curriculum standards

The Virginia Board of Education has announced that they will delay voting on new statewide history curriculum standards, following opposition from the Youngkin administration regarding some of the proposed changes. The proposed changes that have received pushback from Gov. Youngkin (R) include removing “references to George Washington as ‘the father of our country’ and James Madison as the ‘father of the Constitution’” and using the word succession instead of secession. A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education has said that those changes were made in error.   

The state board is responsible for updating the state’s curriculum standards every seven years. The board establishes required curriculum standards that local districts must adhere to. 

In response to the board’s decision to delay the public hearings and vote on the standards, Gov. Youngkin said, “I was pleased that the State Board of Education stepped back, granted additional time for further review before these most important history curriculum standards are released for public comment. We’re doing our work. That’s why Virginians granted us the license to lead last year. We are in fact going to do the work and make sure that we have the best history curriculum in the nation,” according to ABC 7 News

Atif Qarni (D), Virginia’s former Secretary of Education, spoke about the delay in voting on the proposed changes. Qarni contended, “I would just really encourage the board when they meet in September to go ahead and pass them. I realized they were technical edits, which I’m really surprised because we’ve had eight months under the Youngkin administration to get these rolled out. I was disappointed the governor took that [SOL errors] and politicized that even though it’s his Department of Ed, which made those technical edits and how to spell secession versus succession,” according to ABC 7 News.

The board was set to vote on the new history curriculum standards in August but announced that they will delay the vote until the fall. Public hearings on the new standards will begin in September. 

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Voters in St. Louis, Missouri, approve two ballot measures on Aug. 2

On August 2, voters in St. Louis, Missouri, approved two ballot measures—Proposition F and Proposition S.

St. Louis Proposition F amended the city’s charter to increase the maximum fine for violations of ordinances regarding environmental conditions, such as dumping waste and debris and prohibited refuse, from $500 to $1,000. With all precincts reporting, the vote was 85.03% to 14.97%. A 60% supermajority vote was required to approve Proposition F. In March, the St. Louis City Council voted 27-0 to place the measure on the ballot.

St. Louis Public Schools Proposition S authorized the Board of Education to issue $160 million in general obligation bonds for school renovations, repairs, and upgrades. With all precincts reporting, the vote was 86.87% to 13.13%. A four-sevenths (57.14%) vote was needed to approve the ballot measure. 

Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the bond revenue would cover about half of the district’s needed fixes. “We’re only going to touch the surface of this,” said Adams, “We know for a fact that there are more needs than the dollars will support, but this gets us moving in the right direction.” Voters last approved a bond for St. Louis Public Schools in 2010.

Since 2018, voters in St. Louis, and jurisdictions that include St. Louis, have decided on 18 local ballot measures, approving 15 (83%) and rejecting three (17%). Before August 2, the last citywide election in St. Louis was on April 5, 2022, when voters approved two ballot measures – an initiative addressing redistricting and conflict of interest policies and a capital improvements bond measure.   

St. Louis also held citywide primaries on August 2, including for the offices of the collector of revenue, license collector, and recorder of deeds.

Federal judge blocks Biden administration guidance on transgender students

A federal judge from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee on July 15, 2022, struck down a Department of Education order that aims to protect transgender students and workers from discrimination. 

The Biden administration released the challenged guidance in response to recent legislation passed by states that aim to bar transgender students from participating on school sports teams and using bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. The guidance states transgender students are protected under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex at federally funded schools. It also claims that transgender workers are protected under Title VII, which bars employers from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, and/or national origin. The department in June issued a proposed rule seeking to codify parts of the guidance. 

Tennesse and 19 other Republican-led states brought a lawsuit against the federal government last August, asserting the Department of Education overreached its executive authority by issuing the order. The states claim in part that the department’s guidance infringes on state power in violation of the Tenth Amendment.

Judge Charles Atchley, a Trump appointee, ruled the department overreached its authority in order to penalize states for their recent legislation. In a preliminary injunction, Judge Atchley wrote, “[T]he harm alleged by plaintiff States is already occurring – their sovereign power to enforce their own legal code is hampered by the issuance of defendants’ guidance and they face substantial pressure to change their state laws as a result.”

In response to the ruling, Joni Madison, the Human Rights Campaign’s interim president, said, “Nothing in this decision can stop schools from treating students consistent with their gender identity. And nothing in this decision eliminates schools’ obligations under Title IX or students’ or parents’ abilities to bring lawsuits in federal court.” 

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United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee

Charles Atchley