2023 ROADMAP— The midterm elections are over, and Congress has since passed a budget that includes $3 billion in added federal education funding for the new fiscal year.
— Critical issues and decisions still face Capitol Hill, local officials and the Supreme Court in the coming months.
— President Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation plan is on the line. So is the future of college admissions. The White House is resisting House Republican efforts to investigate the federal Education Department and other agencies now that conservatives have seized the Capitol’s lower chamber.
— Three officials meanwhile represent the array of decisions facing policymakers at every level of government this year, as they carry out state policy influenced by the conservative education cultural agenda, build on their desire to remake the country’s childcare system and address urgent demand to help children recover from Covid-19’s academic blow. Prepare for an eventful new year.
IT’S TUESDAY, JAN. 3. WELCOME TO WEEKLY EDUCATION. Reviews by outside experts and internal officials found serious flaws in the nation’s food-inspection programs after four infant hospitalizations and two deaths were linked to infant formula. But the FDA is still processing the recommendations.
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THE SUPREME COURT — President Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation plan heads to the high court in February, where a conservative majority of justices will weigh the legality of canceling up to $20,000 for more than 40 million borrowers.
— Justices already exhibited hostility to some of Biden’s other high-profile pandemic-era policies enacted through emergency authority. It struck down Biden’s workplace Covid vaccine rule and his administration’s extension of the eviction moratorium. Republican appointees have also struck down an EPA climate policy earlier this year in a landmark case that reined in agency powers more broadly. The six GOP states challenging Biden’s student debt relief have invoked that precedent.
— In June, justices are expected to issue a decision that affects colleges’ consideration of race as a factor in admissions, a ruling that could reshape higher education admissions policy.
— The court’s two newest conservative justices appeared reluctant during oral arguments in October to be seen wantonly reversing another line of court precedents that has blessed some use of race in the college admissions process for more than four decades.
— Justices could also soon decide whether they will take up a case that could carry significant implications for the accelerating movement to open publicly-funded, but independently operated religious charter schools.
— A lawsuit propelled by the ACLU successfully challenged a North Carolina school’s dress code policy this past summer, but religious liberty and school choice advocates are urging the high court to take up the case in an effort to address the complex yet essential question of whether charter schools are or are not public “state actors.”
CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS — Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have told Education Secretary Miguel Cardona that they anticipated issuing interview requests for several of his top advisers — Kimberly Watkins-Foote, Larry Bowden and Nicholas Simmons — in 2023.
— But a top lawyer for President Joe Biden now argues GOP oversight demands made during the 117th Congress will have to be started over.
— In recent lettersto congressional Republicans, obtained by POLITICO’s Heidi Przybyla, White House special counsel Richard Sauber said the Biden administration had no immediate plans to respond to a slew of records requests that both men made the past several weeks.
— Sauber described such requests as constitutionally illegitimate because Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who is expected to head the Oversight Committee, made them before they had any authority to do so.
— Conservatives have criticized the administration’s response to a 2021 letter from the National School Boards Association, which requested federal intervention to address threats to school board members and floated possible enforcement of “domestic terrorism” laws.
NAMES TO REMEMBER — The immediate future of education policy now lies in the hands of officials tasked with carrying out and setting priorities that affect millions of schoolchildren. Here are three of the many players to watch this year:
— Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.): The Senate HELP committee chair and former preschool teacher is poised to take control of the upper chamber’s powerful Appropriations Committee in the 118th Congress. The fate of the country’s child care system is her top-of-mind priority. A massive year-end spending package approved by Congress included significant boosts for the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Head Start programs, but that new spending is still insufficient in the eyes of advocates and a significant number of congressional Democrats.
— Ryan Walters, Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction: The culture warrior will soon be inaugurated as the top school official in the GOP-controlled state. Walters has accused liberals of “waging a civil war in our classrooms”. Former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and conservative political organizations supported his campaign. Now Walters will oversee academic standards, teacher licensing and curriculum while Oklahoma fights an ACLU-sponsored lawsuit to challenge a state law that bars courses or concepts that cause any individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race or gender.
— Mark Schneider, Institute of Education Sciences director: The head of the Education Department’s statistics, research and evaluation branch will sit atop a newly-funded federal directive to help schoolchildren recover from Covid-19’s blow to academics. Schneider and IES will oversee roughly $808 million under the government’s 2023 funding deal. Lawmakers are urging IES to spend some of that windfall on advanced research projects for “quick-turnaround, high-reward scalable solutions” to post-Covid learning recovery. It’s a start on a proposed IES initiative lawmakers floated earlier in 2022: A National Center for Advanced Development in Education.
RETURN OF THE MASKS — Some K-12 school systems will require masks on campus this week as students return from winter break and confront colliding waves of respiratory illnesses.
— Nearly 230,000 students and employees of Philadelphia’s school system must wear masks indoors for two weeks starting Wednesday.
— “Like the rest of the nation, we are still grappling with COVID-19 while dealing with other respiratory illnesses like the Flu and RSV,” district Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. said in a holiday-season message to families. “We must all be extra vigilant in doing our part to help keep ourselves and those around us safe.”
— Starting today, New Jersey’s Camden City School District, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, is also implementing a two-week mandatory mask policy amid a reported increase in respiratory cases and what Superintendent Katrina McCombs described as “an effort to be proactive and remain vigilant.”
— Boston’s public schools system is meanwhile asking students and staff to wear masks for several days and take rapid Covid-19 tests before returning to classrooms this week. “This is our ask and expectation of students and staff, not a mandate,” the school system said in a message to families. “No one will be disciplined or sent home if they refuse to wear a mask.”
— In California, the Sacramento City Unified School District told parents it could require masks when students return from break next week amid high levels of local coronavirus cases. New York City schools, meanwhile, “strongly encourage” mask use following warnings from the city’s health department in December.
FILLING BELLIES — Millions of families who picked up the tab for breakfast and lunch served at public schools this year may see financial relief in the fall if state officials can get their legislatures to cooperate.
— Free school meals were usually available only to students who met income requirements for free or reduced-price meals or attended schools that qualified for certain alternative programs before Covid-19. After Congress let a pandemic-era waiver expire that allowed all students to eat school meals for free, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington, among other states, have tried to step in where the federal government left off.
— They’re banking on above-average budgets, new legislative sessions and some federal funds to make sure school dishes come at no cost to any child who wants a meal, Mackenzie reports.
— The pandemic waiver for free school meals, which launched in March 2020, expired at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year after a Covid-19 aid package allowed the Agriculture Department to waive certain regulations for the first time. The percentage of free lunches served dropped from 99.8 percent in May 2022 to 67.5 percent in September, according to data from USDA.
— Data backs the benefits of universal free school meals. Schools that provided no-cost meals for all students, through the Community Eligibility Provision, saw academic and behavioral benefits for students who didn’t meet the income qualifications for free meals, according to research from Krista Ruffini, a Georgetown University professor who has studied universal free school meals and student achievement.
— “We see that expanding the school meals program to all kids, regardless of their families’ income, leads to improvements for kids and families,” Ruffini said. “Math test scores go up, exclusionary discipline — basically out-of-school suspensions — go down and the use of food bank services also falls.”
IDAHO SUSPECT APPREHENDED — Authorities in Pennsylvania arrested a suspect in the killings of four University of Idaho students who were found stabbed to death in their beds more than a month ago, The Associated Press reports.
— The suspect is a Ph.D. student at Washington State University, which is near the University of Idaho. He also is a teaching assistant for the university’s criminal justice and criminology program.
— DNA evidence played a key role in identifying the suspect and authorities were able to match his DNA to genetic material recovered during the investigation, a law enforcement official told the AP.
— University of Idaho President C. Scott Greensaid the institution would continue to offer classes in self-defense, vigilance, stalking awareness, and healthy relationships, while also distributing “personal safety devices.”
— Education department logs record number of discrimination complaints: The New York Times
— U.S. News & World Report to revamp parts of its law school ranking: The Wall Street Journal
— Defining ‘woman’ battle heads to states amid new wave of LGBTQ bills: POLITICO
— Alexis Ewing, with a big game and notable name, capitalizes on publicity rights: The Washington Post