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What School Superintendents Want From the Biden Administration

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Perhaps more than any other time in the last three decades, the pandemic has thrown into relief the kinds of services districts provide that tend to be invisible during "business-as-usual times": health care, nutrition, after-school care. And in the absence of any coordinated federal response to the K-12 challenges of the pandemic, the nation's school districts have been forced by default into making consequential decisions about staffing, security, and health. 

Now the groups representing the nation's more than 13,000 school districts are putting out their markers for what they want the new administration to prioritize, raising this key question: Will they have more clout than before?

Both AASA, the School Superintendents' Administration, which is the main membership organization for district leaders, and the smaller Chiefs for Change put out briefs this week. It's the first salvo in what will probably be a wave of similar "wish lists" from the national education groups.

Let's take a look at what they want to see.

Funding. Chiefs for Change focuses on the need for an additional emergency relief package for schools, comparing the $13.5 billion schools received in the coronavirus package earlier this year to the $100 billion that the Obama administration passed as part of the 2008 economic-stimulus legislation.

"With high unemployment and cratering property and sales tax revenues, school systems are bracing for deep cuts. Some districts within the Chiefs for Change membership project are losing nearly a quarter of their net operating budgets," CEO Mike Magee wrote in the letter.

The AASA also supports a COVID relief package, but its list also includes other things to ease districts' budgets: streamlined Medicaid reimbursements for school-based programs and additional funding for school nutrition programs. (Many districts saw school meal participation drop during the pandemic, affecting reimbursements. Lower enrollments this year could also affect future funding because enrollment in school meal programs is used as a proxy for poverty in other programs.) 

And the AASA wants to see the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act fully funded. That has been a longstanding request from district leaders, pretty much since the ink dried on the 1975 legislation. This is probably a longer shot if only because inertia is hard to overcome, and there are obviously a lot of things that will be vying for federal appropriations in what's likely to be a divided Congress. 

Closing the "digital divide" and supporting school infrastructure. Topping both of the groups' lists is federal support to close gaps in access to broadband, which affect an estimated 17 million students. Those gaps have become painfully clear over the past six months.

While many districts have set up hot-spots and distributed devices, this patchwork solution could "perpetuate historical inequities," according to the Chiefs for Change letter. The group encourages Congress to come up with a solution "to deliver the internet to every home." 

Similarly, the AASA says that the administration should fund the E-Rate program at $4 billion in a COVID package. It also calls for $100 billion for modernizing school infrastructure. 

Reversing or revising some regulations. Chiefs for Change highlights the Obama Admistration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, which provides undocumented individuals protection from deportation and improved access to work and higher education. It calls on the new Congress to enact a comprehensive, bipartisan overhaul of the nation's immigration system, noting the uncertainty DACA recipients and others have faced in recent years. 

(The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to phase out DACA but multiple federal district courts have prevented that from happening. The U.S. Supreme Court has also kept DACA in place based on administrative concerns over how the administration tried to rescind the program, but it has not ruled on the merits of DACA.)

The AASA points to several other Trump administration rules it would like to see revoked. They include its recent Title IX regulation, which created a more stringent evidentiary standard for claims of sexual assault, among other things; the "public charge" rule, which would have allowed immigration officials to deny green cards to those who might seek public assistance; and its revision to "categorical eligibility" for food stamps. (That change would no longer have permitted those who receive welfare benefits to automatically be eligible for food stamps and school meal programs.) All three regulatory changes have been tied up in various lawsuits.

What Other Things Made the Wish Lists? 

The AASA, notably, calls for more regular and routine communications between federal education staff and superintendents—and says that was lacking during both the Trump and the Obama administrations' tenure.

"We're looking for greater engagement and communications with our system leaders," said Dan Domenech, the AASA executive director, in an interview. "We're often contacted by legislators on both sides of the aisle seeking information because we're one of the few who can give them real-time information on what's happening on the field," he said. "The Education Department needs to take advantage of that." 

As for teaching and learning issues, Chiefs for Change specifically highlights the importance of postsecondary pathways, including expanding access to rigorous high school coursework, modernizing career-technical education programs, and simplifying federal financial-aid forms. It also seeks additional funding for charter and magnet school programs.

AASA, by contrast, doesn't address school choice except to call on the administration to eliminate the District of Columbia voucher program, the only federally funded such program.

Read more in the Chiefs for Change letter here and the AASA's brief here.

Image: Getty

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