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The New Reality Roundup | Week 182

It is week 182 in our new reality and we are thinking about what the fiscal cliff will mean for America’s students.

“It’s a perfect storm of financial chaos brought on by the abrupt ending of federal pandemic relief funds, falling district enrollments, and slowing state revenues,” Marguerite Roza and Katherine Silberstein write in their new briefing for the Brookings Institution. “The question now is whether leaders will take action to ensure that our most vulnerable students don’t once again feel the brunt of the effects.”

Without strong leadership, the impact of the end of federal emergency funding will likely be largest for the poorest students in the country. As Roza and Silberstein explain: “High-poverty communities will see sharper impacts to their school budgets in part because of how ESSER funding was structured: At the outset, ESSER funds were intended to provide greater levels of support for high-need schools.”

At the same time, in example after example, we see school districts struggling to get ahead of this reality by making hard choices. “At its height, San Francisco’s newcomer school — a beacon for Chinese immigrants who’d just landed in the city — served 200 students. Today, just 11 sit in the desks,” Jill Tucker writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. “With two teachers, a principal, a clerk and cafeteria workers, the district expects to spend about $832,000 this year to operate the school … Based on current enrollment, that’s $75,000 per student.”

Meanwhile in Texas, the Dallas Morning News reports that in the competition to build the most expensive high school football stadium, the bar has been raised again with Prosper school district proposing a new $94 million stadium to supplement their existing $53 million stadium. “Runners up include: Cy-Fair ISD’s $80 million stadium, McKinney’s $70 million coliseum and Allen’s $60 million arena, which at the time sounded like a lot. Now it sounds like a bargain,” writes Dave Lieber.

Between schools that should be closed but aren’t and stadiums that don’t need to be built but are, it’s worth pausing to ask: in the coming era of tight budgets, what will it take to focus on maximizing academic success?

Last week, we explored the end goal we are all working towards and put a spotlight on upcoming innovations in measurement. This we take a look at a breakthrough win on universal school choice in North Carolina and examine the steps needed to match an expansion of parental choices with better information for families to navigate these options.

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The New Reality Roundup | Week 178

It is week 178 of our new reality and in the spirit of all the children returning back to a new school year, we are embracing the possibility of a brighter future ahead.

The best way to aim high without losing touch with reality is to build upon what’s working. We were reminded of this last week by Emily Oster’s project tracking how state achievement levels are rebounding after the pandemic. It showed that Mississippi and Tennessee have fared particularly well during this recovery period, a pattern also seen in last year’s NAEP data. For example, on the 4th grade math 2022 NAEP, Mississippi and Tennessee were #1 and #2 in the country on gains since 2011 in the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in an environment where only six states avoided falling backwards during that time. In fact, on the 8th grade math NAEP, Tennessee was the only state that made progress since 2011.

Mississippi’s work on early literacy has started to receive some long-overdue attention. Yet, Tennessee’s progress continues to be overlooked in a media environment drawn to everything except stories about achievement.

Historically a leader on education reform, since the start of the pandemic Tennessee has shifted into overdrive in its push to put students first. That includes moving quickly to make in-person learning available to every family that wanted it in fall 2020, using federal funding to offer free tutoring and free summer learning programs for families in early 2021, dramatically reforming its education funding system in 2022 to provide $750 million in additional funds aligned to student need and in support of a robust school choice system, and in 2023 it created a permanent fund for charter school facilities, expanded its ESA program to new students, mandated that students who are retained a grade be given a tutor, and made summer learning a permanent feature of its education system. Along the way it has invested in high-quality materials and evidence-based instruction and supported a clear and unambiguous high-bar for every student at a time when transparency and accountability systems are being watered down or dismantled in states across the county. And it achieved one of the lowest absenteeism rates in the country.

Building the will to do more starts with putting a spotlight on how much is already being done in states like Tennessee that can be replicated everywhere when we believe in better.

Last week, we reflected on the importance of bipartisanship, spoke with 74 Million reporter Linda Jacobson on her 10-month investigation into how ESSER funds were spent and looked into Available To All’s report on the criminalization of address sharing.

This week, we’re opening the doors for a conversation on high school by highlighting an innovative district embracing a world of open and connected learning and a promising new initiative in Colorado to invest in more models that reimagine high school.