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State Budgets Poised to Bring More Money for K-12 in Coming Year

state budgets poised to bring more money for k 12 in coming year
MB MarketplaceK12 081921 No Dramatic Budget Cuts 1298882308

State budgets will not see the deep cuts that many feared at the height of the pandemic and are expected to funnel more money into school districts over the coming year, according to a new analysis.

New data from the National Association of State Budget Officers shows signs of improvement across state spending plans. While they generally haven’t rebounded to pre-pandemic projections, general fund spending is on track to increase by 3 percent this year, the data reveals. And governors in 39 states proposed increasing state spending in fiscal year 2022, which covers the coming academic year.

That’s good news for public schools, which rely heavily on state funding sources. NASBO figures project K-12 spending to increase nationally by $23.9 billion in fiscal 2022 — a counterbalance to the $7.4 billion cut in spending schools faced this year. 

And that doesn’t include the federal money directed to schools through the American Rescue Plan, the sweeping measure signed into law by President Biden in March, which channeled $122 million into K-12.

It’s a very different reality than the one school districts and governors were bracing for around this time last year, when revenues in 45 states fell and experts warned it could take years to dig out of coronavirus budget holes.

“Last spring, when the pandemic first hit and the economy was spiraling down, there was definitely a fear that the cuts would be a lot worse than we saw,” said Kathryn White, director of budget process studies for NASBO. “Generally, the outlook has been improving since those spring forecasts.”

Tax Bases Bounced Back

There are multiple reasons the more dire predictions didn’t come to pass, White said. For one, the federal stimulus money pumped into the economy ultimately boosted state coffers.

States also didn’t see severe drops in income taxes as many higher-income workers were less impacted by COVID-19 than expected, because many transitioned to working from home. And she said online shopping helped mitigate losses in sales tax revenue.

Overall, 38 states had their general fund collections for fiscal year 2021 come in higher than expected. That’s a completely flipped story from 2020, when 35 states had revenues fall short of their budget. 

States were also able to lean on their reserves. Prior to COVID-19, states’ rainy day funds were at an all-time high after a decade of rebuilding following the Great Recession, NASBO found. Balances were as high as 14 percent of states’ spending. After 2020, balances dropped 12.8 percent, and they’re expected to fall again in 2022. 

While the national picture is rosy, White said it’s important to note that some states were hit harder than others. 

For example, states with an especially strong tourism industry or a higher unemployment rate saw larger negative impacts on their budgets, according to the NASBO analysis. Those states were more likely to make budget cuts this year, and they’re planning more modest budgets for 2022.

That means the impact on K-12 spending will vary by state. And schools also will continue to cover additional costs caused by the pandemic, including extra safety precautions or increased support to address student academic stagnation during the pandemic. 

States will have to be careful with how they allocate one-time federal money and budget for the next few years to ensure long term stability, White said. 

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty about what the post-COVID economy will look like, how it will affect states,” White said. “And, of course, the Delta variant in the U.S. has tempered some activity in places, so that adds another layer of uncertainty.”

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Broad Congressional Proposal Would Raise Data Privacy Bar for Ed-Tech Companies

broad congressional proposal would raise data privacy bar for ed tech companies
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Broad Congressional Proposal Would Raise Data Privacy Bar for Ed-Tech Companies

A recently released congressional proposal would trigger a swath of new requirements for how ed-tech companies handle K-12 student data they collect, and establish an independent auditing process for their data protection practices.

The drafter of the proposed measure, Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., is seeking input from ed-tech companies and other members of the K-12 community on what language should ultimately be included in final legislation she plans to introduce later this year.

The proposal suggests limiting usage of student data collected by education businesses in several ways, including prohibiting targeted advertising involving students’ personal information, and banning the sale of student data except in cases of company acquisitions and sales of test-score reports for college recruitment.

Trahan presented the proposed language to allow commercial transactions for test score data as one of several points of discussion for parents, educators, students, and industry, as her office works to craft a final bill sometime around early winter, she told EdWeek Market Brief in an interview.

Sale of test score data can be a contentious issue.

Privacy advocates often argue that assessment companies don’t thoroughly inform students and parents when selling data to colleges and scholarship providers. On the flip side, some civil rights advocates  assert that colleges’ purchases of test score data are useful for enrolling students from low-income school districts who may get overlooked by traditional recruitment efforts, Trahan noted.

“I believe that we can strike a thoughtful balance, and making this a point of discussion as we work on an updated draft of the legislation is key to achieving that,” she said.

Commenters have until Oct. 31 to provide input for final legislation to be introduced later this year.

In addition to prohibiting certain uses of student data, the draft legislation also outlines several allowable cases of student data disclosure for companies, including to ensure legal and regulatory compliance, participation in the judicial process, and research purposes allowed by federal or state law.

Trahan wants companies to share their views on the issue of allowable disclosure, including their experiences navigating state laws that trigger disclosure of student information, she said.

Small and midsize companies should also comment on the draft’s provision to establish “technology impact assessments” that examine the student-data collection practices of ed-tech companies, Trahan said.

The draft would task the Federal Trade Commission with organizing a process for technology impact assessments to be conducted by independent auditors of any education company deemed to host “high-risk” platforms for student data protection purposes.

Defining “High-Risk”

The draft bill defines several criteria for what would constitute “high-risk.”

Those  criteria include software platforms that pose a significant risk to privacy or security of students; store personal student information regarding race, national origin, political opinions, religion, sexual orientation, and criminal convictions; and, platforms that present the possibility of an inaccurate, unfair, biased, or discriminatory decision that impacts a student.

The independent technology impact assessments would be required to describe the data that companies collect, provide a risk analysis considering harms to students, discrimination, and accessibility; and, explain companies’ risk mitigation processes.

The draft bill identifies the provision for independent auditors to conduct technology impact assessments as a point of discussion for K-12 stakeholders to have in the leadup to a final bill.

Ed tech, including artificial intelligence-influenced ed tech, is not subject to the same certification requirements as other critical industries, such as the legal and accounting professions, which require many practitioners to undergo continuing education and outside auditing processes, Trahan said.

“Ideally, legislation like ours could provide the incentive to scholars and standards-making bodies to create a certified [ed tech] industry,” she said. “But you don’t arrive there until you hear from small and midsized companies so that we can understand the burden that may come with them hiring potentially expensive, and currently uncertified auditors.”

Though the draft bill  has not been formally introduced in Congress yet, Trahan hopes to work across party lines, as well as with lawmakers interested in relevant tech topics like AI, as her office draws up final legislation. Twenty-seven House lawmakers compose the bipartisan Congressional AI Caucus.

The draft measure is “extremely comprehensive,” and the public participation process will allow the K-12 community to address any potential gaps they might see in the legislation, said Ariel Fox, senior counsel for global policy at Common Sense Media.

Fox lauded the proposal for  establishing a formal process for external audits of companies’ data protection practices. In recent years, such provisions have generally been left out of ed-tech legislation proposed within the U.S.

The impact assessment provisions draw from language embedded in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, and the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code. Both of those regulations direct companies covered by the regulations to deeply vet how their software impacts users’ privacy.

“A concept that we see a lot in international laws is this notion that companies should really take a hard look at what they’re doing with data, what they’re collecting, why they’re collecting it,” Fox said. “It’s exciting to see that in her proposal as well.”

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Will Education Companies Require Employees to Get Vaccinated?

will education companies require employees to get vaccinated
MB MarketTrends Vaccinations 1297455067

The highly contagious COVID-19 variant stressing school reopening plans is forcing education technology companies to confront how much leeway they give their employees to choose whether to get vaccinated.

The decision for those businesses – like those across the U.S. economy – is not only about the rules they set for their own work environment, but…

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New Institute Backed by National Science Foundation to Explore AI’s Role in Education

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A ed-tech nonprofit will join four universities in launching a new institute dedicated to creating artificial intelligence tools that can be applied to human learning and education.

The effort is meant to encourage the development of products for use in K-12, influence future AI products made for K-12, and is intended to improve upon past AI technologies that were difficult for teachers to use, said Jeremy Roschelle, executive director of learning sciences research for Digital Promise, the education nonprofit involved in the initiative.

“There’s an emphasis here on what people are calling classroom orchestration – how to help teachers organize for longer-term, more complex, collaborative, problem-solving things,” Roschelle said. “I think the classroom orchestration part, in particular, could be part of a big change in what products people emphasize in the market, and how they support teachers.”

A 5-year, $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation will support the AI Institute for Engaged Learning, Digital Promise said. Analysts, policymakers, and product developers from Digital Promise will join researchers from North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina, Indiana University, and Vanderbilt University, for the initiative.

The work of the institute will have three main goals:

  1. Created platforms will incorporate story-based problem scenarios fostering communication, teamwork, and creativity.
  2. Platforms will generate AI characters capable of communicating with students through speech, facial expression, gesture, gaze, and posture.
  3. The institute will build a framework that will customize educational scenarios and processes to help students learn, based on information collected from conversations, gaze, facial expressions, gestures, and postures of students as they interact with one another, teachers, and the technology itself.

Schools, museums, and outside nonprofits will work with the institute to ensure created tools are ethically designed and advance diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the announcement.

District officials, and advocates for the ethical use of technology, have raised repeated concerns about potential pitfalls in applying AI-powered technology in schools. One fear is that because AI systems are dependent on collecting large amounts of data and using algorithms to guide policy and classroom practice, they will end up reinforcing racial, gender or other stereotypes.

For example, could an AI-powered curriculum platform, or one that recommends academic interventions for students, end up directing more students of color into remedial coursework, because of biased algorithmic assumptions?  (See Education Week’s recent special report breaking down concerns about AI’s role in classrooms.)

Data Privacy in Focus

A November report by the Center for Integrative Research in Computing and Learning Sciences cites several concerns and considerations come into play when it comes to how AI technologies safeguard student privacy.

How will AI-recorded student conversations and emotional data be used? How long will information be saved? Will it be part of a student’s record? These are all questions that come into play when AI and children interact, the report notes.

AI detection of emotions, through facial expressions, is well-developed, though challenging from a privacy and ethical standpoint, and appropriate policies must still be determined to address these challenges, the report says.

“A very strong focus of this institute … is coming together to really think about how do we tackle some of these issues of privacy, security?” Roschelle said. “None of this is going to fly if people are terrified.”

If AI can be applied creatively and responsibly, it has the power to enrich lessons across subjects, Roschelle said.

He offered an example detailing how forthcoming AI tools might generate story-based situations that promote collaboration and creativity.

Imagine a science class planning a trip to Mars over a three-week period, he said. For the purposes of that trip, they would need to measure gravity, the strength of the Sun’s energy, and air moisture. They would have to plot out measurement devices that they need, the composition of student teams to observe measurements, and what vehicles to bring.

In this case, an effective AI system could “help them along the way whenever they get stuck,” Roschelle said, and “tune the story to the choices they make.”

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Spending on Tech-Based Curriculum Jumps During the Pandemic, New Survey of IT Leaders Finds

spending on tech based curriculum jumps during the pandemic new survey of it leaders finds
MB ED 110520 1

K-12 curriculum software and subscription spending grew at a higher rate than any other technology budget area for school districts last school year, as their IT budgets mostly increased from the previous school year.

In a survey of 170 district technology leaders by the Consortium for School Networking, 62 percent of participants reported their schools’ funding for curricular software/subscriptions rose between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, with 56 percent also noting a spike in cybersecurity investment.

Another 56 percent of respondents said their district’s overall IT budget expanded, with 12 percent citing a “major” increase, according to a summary of the report.CoSNGraph

District technology leaders ranked cybersecurity as the top unmet technology need, followed by home access connectivity and interoperability.

“In a situation where even well-funded corporations in the private sector struggle to address cybersecurity issues, poorly funded districts are at a disadvantage,” CoSN said. “One respondent called the need for more cybersecurity funding as ‘desperate.’”

Cybersecurity has been a focus area for CoSN, which is one of several organizations that endorsed the Enhancing K-12 Cybersecurity Act. That bill would set a path for the federal government to guide best practices for K-12 cybersecurity and provide cybersecurity grants to schools that could benefit certain education companies.

Congressional lawmakers have not acted to advance the bill.

Big Investments in Hybrid Learning

In addition to greater curricular software and cybersecurity spending, the majority of those surveyed also noted new technology initiatives, with 64 percent saying that they added classroom technology to support simultaneous hybrid learning, such as rotating cameras, microphones and speakers; and 60 percent reporting that they now offer a remote-only instruction option.

Further, 37 percent of tech chiefs said they added “district-wide student-facing Cloud-based applications,” such as learning management systems, to their digital ecosystems, and 23 percent of districts gave devices or extra monitors to educators for home use.

Only 2 percent of participants reported not supporting new IT initiatives or existing IT efforts that weren’t already supported pre-pandemic.

Almost all district leaders are looking to the federal government for technology funding help.

About three-quarters of those questioned plan to request support from the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund for Wi-Fi hot spots, while 90 percent of respondents said infusions provided through three stimulus bills enacted over the last 17 months significantly helped remote-learning or related IT initiatives in their districts during the pandemic. (See EdWeek Market Brief’s recent, nationwide survey showing how district officials plan to spend the new, $7 billion connectivity fund overseen by the FCC.)

The three COVID stimulus packages heaped an overall $189.5 billion financial windfall on U.S. K-12 schools. Districts have until Sept. 30, 2024, to commit the last bit of that money.

Compared with the CoSN review, a recent EdWeek Market Brief survey found a slightly lower percentage – 62 percent – of 280 district administrators interviewed, planned to seek ECF reimbursement for Wi-Fi hot spots for home use. However, the CoSN survey did not specify that the hot spots sought for reimbursement pertained only to home use.

“There is a marked shift in how school district IT leaders are preparing for this fall, compared to the back-to-school survey results from last year,” CoSN CEO Keith Krueger said in a statement. “While the federal government delivered critical funding when school districts needed it most, we must now invest in cybersecurity and ensure sustainable, secure and equitable home broadband access for students and educators into the future.”

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Graph provided with permission from the Consortium for School Networking


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Congressional Bill Aims to Incentivize Education Companies, Schools to Sharpen Cybersecurity

congressional bill aims to incentivize education companies schools to sharpen cybersecurity
MB Analysts Cybersecurity Connect 06162021 GettyImages 1271619512

A bill recently introduced in the House would help define best cybersecurity practices for K-12 vendors and outline new spending that could benefit certain education companies focused on online safety.

The Enhancing K-12 Cybersecurity Act, introduced June 17 by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., would task the Department of Homeland Security with establishing a program to circulate K-12 cybersecurity best practices, training, and lessons learned, and with recommending online safety tools for purchase by state education agencies and school districts.

The bill calls on DHS to consult with school IT vendors and cybersecurity companies in putting together the list of best practices.

Doug Levin, the national director for the K12 Security Information Exchange is lobbying for the Matsui bill, expects significant regulatory action at the federal and state levels around K-12 cybersecurity, though it’s difficult to say exactly when that will happen. The K-12 Security Information Exchange operates the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, an online database that tracks K-12 cybersecurity incidents.

The House bill could face a steep climb to become law, as the House Education and Labor Committee currently has no plans to consider the measure, and companion legislation has yet to be introduced in the Senate.

Lawmakers failed to vote on a similar bill introduced in 2020, before the previous congressional term ended in December.

Schools are relying more on technology for remote learning, and policymakers are seeing the need to start imposing baseline internet safety expectations for school districts and vendors, he said.

With cybersecurity policies likely to tighten, school districts and government agencies will increasingly look toward education companies that have already crafted and adhere to a set of best practices for cybersecurity, Levin said.

If passed, the federal bill charts the creation of a DHS-run database that would recommend security tools and services for schools to purchase, and allow schools and states to find and apply for funding opportunities to improve cybersecurity.

H.R. 4005 doesn’t spell out how the money would be dispersed, so the federal government would likely issue further guidance on expenses that might qualify for any cybersecurity grants issued, if the legislation is enacted, Levin said.

In addition to defining best practices and outlining new channels for K-12 cybersecurity funding, the legislation proposes the development of a voluntary registry of K-12 cyberattack incidents, and would require yearly DHS reports analyzing cyber incidents across all levels of K-12.

Information to be collected into the registry may include descriptions of the incidents’ size, and whether each incident was the result of a breach, malware, distributed denial of service attack, or other method designed to cause a vulnerability.

“The bill certainly is responsive to the needs that members of Congress have been hearing from the field,” Levin said. “School districts are feeling under assault from ransomware.”

Levin has compiled data showing that many cyberattacks have targeted teacher and student data stored by education companies, not just within schools.

According to the K12 Cybersecurity Resource Center’s most recent annual report on the state of K-12 cybersecurity, at least 75 percent of all data breach incidents affecting public K-12 school districts resulted from occurrences involving school vendors and other partners.

The Federal Trade Commission has ratcheted up its focus on data breaches in K-12 recently, signaling a stricter enforcement posture toward companies that collect data on K-12 students and teachers.

Organizations endorsing the Enhancing K-12 Cybersecurity Act include the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and the Consortium for School Networking.

“As cyber criminals grow more sophisticated and aggressive, we must provide the resources and information necessary to protect our schools,” Matsui said in a statement. “The Enhancing K-12 Cybersecurity Act provides a roadmap and prepares our cyberinfrastructure for the threats of tomorrow.”

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Connect Students Online, Boost Your Country’s Gross Domestic Product?

connect students online boost your countrys gross domestic product
062321 School Connectivity AP BS

Expanding and improving internet connectivity for schools can have a positive impact reaching beyond improving students’ access to information.

A new analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit released earlier this year finds that closing the digital divide in education can boost a country’s economy. Even simply increasing the speed of broadband for school buildings can lead to gains in a country’s gross domestic product, the authors of the report contend.

The researchers say that a quality internet connection, when used well, leads to improved academic results, which then produce higher salaries that support a healthier economy.

A 10 percent increase in school connectivity can increase the effective years of schooling for children by 0.6 percent, and raise the GDP per capita of a country by 1.1 percent, the analysis found.

“The biggest takeaway is the massive amount of potential that school connectivity has to close gaps that exist not just in education but in communities and beyond,” said Shivangi Jain, an EIU public policy consultant and lead economist.

“It gives children all over the world access to basically the same information… I don’t think any other approach has quite that same potential.”

Having access to the internet provides students a “wealth of resources” and enables new forms of learning, including through adaptive learning platforms, the report says, which plays a role in improving the quality of education students receive globally.

“Improved learning outcomes proliferate through adolescence and adulthood, leading to a wider range of higher education and career opportunities,” the report said. “Ultimately, these benefits to individuals are reflected in terms of higher incomes, better health and improved overall well-being.”

Basic Access Not Enough

However, Jain, one of the report’s authors, said governments and schools need to take steps to ensure the new connectivity is being used to its full potential, including by prioritizing digital learning education policy and overcoming barriers to integration, such as building infrastructure or obtaining devices. Access also needs to be affordable and high quality in terms of speed and reliability, the report said.

In the United States, 99 percent of schools are connected to fiber infrastructure, according to the report. But the quality of connection varies greatly among states and areas. Improving the bandwidth per student at schools nationwide to meet the country’s highest standard would increase the GDP by as much as 5.5 percent, according to the report.

In developing countries, connecting schools to the internet could have a more immediate impact on the wider community by enabling local entrepreneurship, introducing the gig economy, and providing access to online banking and improved emergency communications.

The report was sponsored by UNICEF and comes two years after the organization launched an initiative to connect every school to the internet. Globally, two-thirds of children between the ages of 3 or 17 — 1.3 billion — don’t have access to the internet.

It also comes after the U.S. approved $7 billion in federal aid for improved internet connectivity, spurred in part by the gaps in access that were spotlighted during the pandemic and schools’ abrupt pivot to remote learning. That funding, approved as part of the stimulus measure signed into law by President Biden, focus specifically on increasing students’ access to reliable internet services at home.

“This is the moment to be discussing this,” Jain said. “Children need access to connectivity regardless of where they are, and the pandemic really highlighted that … or at least enables people to see what [connectivity] can offer.”

Photo: AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

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Learning Loss During COVID Will Fuel Economic Losses, Business Leaders Predict

learning loss during covid will fuel economic losses business leaders predict
Economy Blog

The impact of learning loss during the pandemic won’t just be felt in the classroom. It could also saddle the future economy.

That was the core argument put forward recently by a group of eight business leaders from North Carolina, who made a public plea for state policymakers to address students’ academic slippage during COVID.

Among their recommendations, laid out at a recent online event, were for state policymakers to set up a recurring funding stream to train all of the state’s educators, and to move from a “student tutoring model” for literacy education to a model that supports educators based on the “science of reading.”

Reading proficiency among North Carolina 3rd graders slightly worsened during the pandemic.

According to a report last month by the (Raleigh) News & Observer, accounting for 67.7 percent of 3rd-grade students who had taken midyear assessments, 75.4 percent of 3rd graders were not reading at a proficient level, compared to 73.6 percent last school year.

“Let’s be clear: This is not just a North Carolina problem,” said Kelly King, chairman and CEO of Charlotte, N.C.-based Truist Financial Corp., a consumer and commercial bank holding company. “This is a national problem.”

The impact of learning loss does not appear to be hitting all U.S. school communities equally. A report released by McKinsey & Company in December found that there was a 10 percent drop in average K-5 reading levels among majority-white schools during COVID, but a 23 percent drop in average K-5 reading levels among minority-majority schools.

Another participant in the North Carolina event, Honeywell Chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk, noted that COVID has likely accelerated the need for higher educational attainment, a demand that is unlikely to abate. Honeywell, headquartered in North Carolina, is a conglomerate with a heavy focus in aerospace and building technologies, among other industries.

Investing in early reading proficiency is integral to weathering a changing economy, and for students to gain education and skills to meet the needs of businesses, Adamczyk said.

“The recommendations we’re making today will address inequities in our workforce and help us develop a strong, diverse, and resilient talent pipeline well into the future,” he said.

In addition to recommending recurring state investments in teacher training in reading, the leaders called for North Carolina policymakers to maintain and even expand funding for pre-K access in the state and to eventually accomplish the goal of enrolling 75 percent of the state’s pre-K-eligible children, and to ensure that every county hits that benchmark.

The state currently funds pre-K programs at about $154 million per year.

Fred Whitfield, president and vice chairman of Hornets Sports & Entertainment, noted that about 9,100 fewer children enrolled in North Carolina pre-K for the 2020-2021 school year compared with the previous school year, eliminating all of the enrollment gains made in the state over the last four years.

Before COVID, enrollment in the state’s pre-K had topped 31,000 children — about 50 percent of the children eligible for the program statewide, he said. Now, pre-K programs in the state are serving only 36 percent of eligible children.

A Big Focus on Pre-K

“The drop in enrollment should not be viewed as a decrease in demand or need for North Carolina pre-K,” Whitfield said. “To the contrary, although we have much to overcome, this proven high-quality program, targeted at some of our most at-risk children, is needed now, more than ever.”

In addition to calling for more support for pre-K, the business leaders are asking state officials to inflation-adjust North Carolina’s pre-K funding for the first time in nine years, to require an annual such inflation adjustment, and to modify county-state cost sharing percentages to help economically disadvantaged counties cover program costs, Whitfield said.

During their presentation, the business leaders cited a 2016 CEO action plan to support improved U.S. literacy rates put forward by Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs at leading U.S. companies.

North Carolina business leaders were inspired by the action plan to initiate several pro-education initiatives, including creation of a comprehensive aligned education system for grades pre-K-3, as well as launching a data methodology to ensure that children stay on track to achieve reading proficiency, said Dale Jenkins, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based medical malpractice insurance provider Curi.

A “robust data system” is scheduled to roll out later this year, Jenkins said.

In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly formed the Birth through Third Grade, or B-3, Interagency Council, which is a joint council between the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

The goal of the effort was to create a vision for a birth through 3rd-grade system of early education, and a system of accountability tied to it, including standards and assessment, data-driven improvement and outcomes, and teacher and administrator preparation and effectiveness.

“We’ve made progress on these goals through the B-3 Interagency Council that was created in 2017 to address these issues among others,” Jenkins said. “We applaud the General Assembly and the governor for moving this forward together.”

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How School Districts Will Spend Money From the New Federal Stimulus

how school districts will spend money from the new federal stimulus
How will K-12 districts spend federal stimulus funding?

School systems are expected to have broad latitude to spend money from the American Rescue Plan on classroom and non-academic needs.

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Bipartisan Legislation Would Allow E-Rate Funding for School Bus Wi-Fi

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MB Ben Ray Lujan BLOG
Ben Ray Lujan

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress would make make E-Rate money available to support Wi-Fi on school buses, the latest of several recent recent efforts to expand student internet connectivity outside school hours.

Sens. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have introduced the legislation, which would require the Federal Communications Commission to issue regulations to make Wi-Fi access on school buses eligible for support under the E-Rate program no later than 180 days after enactment. Under the bill, schools would be reimbursed for equipping buses with Wi-Fi.

The E-Rate program is funded at $4 billion annually, and allows schools to receive reimbursement for certain internet services provided on campus.

If policymakers provide more financial support for off-campus wireless services, it could increase the ability of students to make use of companies’ ed-tech tools, apps, and platforms, including on long bus rides where students have access to laptops and other devices, if this bill gets enacted.

The bill is aimed, in part, at promoting digital equity for rural and tribal communities in states like New Mexico, according to Lujan’s office.

Approximately one-quarter of New Mexico’s over 350,000 students don’t have affordable internet, according to a statement by the New Mexico Homework Gap Team, which describes itself as an ad hoc group of professionals who support narrowing the digital divide for K-12 students in the state.

A December study by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated that almost 17 million students nationwide lack home internet access to complete school assignments.

“For rural and tribal students who travel hours to and from school, these commutes can be valuable time accessing the internet, completing assignments, and conducting research,” Lujan said in a statement. “Empowering our schools to equip buses with Wi-Fi is an opportunity to uplift our students, tackle the homework gap, and help alleviate the financial strain that too many families are experiencing at home.”

If passed, the legislation would give schools more flexibility in terms of figuring out how they can best use ed tech to promote equity, said Amina Fazlullah, equity policy director for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting safe and effective technology use for children.

“Every community has different layers of barriers to equitable access to education related to technology,” she said in an interview. “Having that flexibility ultimately in the E-Rate program will be incredibly useful for schools where students have long commutes.”

But Fazlullah suggested that the ed-tech funding expansion outlined in the Lujan-Graham bill shouldn’t substitute for other potential federal initiatives to support costs for students’ home connectivity.

It remains to be seen whether the FCC will act decisively on some lawmakers’ and education advocates’ calls for a long-term, dedicated funding source to support students’ home connectivity.

The COVID-19 stimulus package approved earlier this month allocated $7 billion to the FCC for the creation of what is being called the “Emergency Connectivity Fund,” separate from E-Rate, to pay for high-speed internet and devices used off campus.

The commission also recently announced plans for a policy that, among many other things, would allow school districts to apply for reimbursement for costs they have paid for students and teachers to access broadband at home.

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, in an interview with Education Week this month, said the agency remains in the “process of evaluating how we can update the current E-Rate program to meet the moment students and families find themselves in.” She spoke after the agency in February issued a request for public comments on whether E-Rate funds could be used to support remote learning during the pandemic.

In 2018, then a U.S. congressman, Lujan became familiar with how Wi-Fi operates on a school bus when he attended a “Rolling Study Halls” event. Hosted by Santa Fe Schools and funded by Google, the event took a Wi Fi-equipped bus to a Native American pueblo in New Mexico, Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for the district, noted in an email.

In addition to Santa Fe, the Albuquerque district is one other school system that has outfitted school buses with mobile Wi-Fi units, installing hot spots on 80 buses across the area as of October.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has introduced legislation similar to the Lujan-Graham bill in the House.

The legislation has picked up endorsements from the National Education Association, Competitive Carriers Association, Free Press, Public Knowledge, School Superintendents Association, Association of Educational Service Agencies, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, National Rural Education Association, National Rural Education Advocacy Consortium, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

Photo: Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., is pictured on June 29, 2018, visiting the Kewa Pueblo, a Native American settlement southwest of Santa Fe, N.M.  The program was called “Rolling Study Halls” which was funded by Google.


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