K-12 Education

CSG Midwest
The state of North Dakota is partnering with one of its public universities to help school districts address a persistent, widespread workforce challenge — the shortage of licensed special-education teachers. Using a $750,000 grant from the state, Minot State University will create a new scholarship program that allows 20 education paraprofessionals to earn a degree in special education. These 20 individuals already have been working with special-education students in the state. North Dakota is using a portion of its money from the federal CARES Act to fund the scholarship program, which will cover seven semesters of instruction for each recipient.
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This spring, as schools across the nation shut down in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Dakota and broadband service providers in the state stepped up.
The result was a quick reduction in what has been dubbed the “homework gap.”
“What’s really impressive is that in a matter of weeks, North Dakota was able to get 90 percent of unconnected student homes hooked up to broadband,” Jack Lynch, state engagement director for the nonprofit group EducationSuperHighway, said during a July 30 webinar held by three committees of The Council of State Governments’ Midwestern Legislative Conference.
The gap in student access to internet connectivity is nothing new. What’s changed, though, is the urgency among state policymakers to address the problem, as schools rely more on remote learning to replace some or all in-person instruction and to ensure the continuity of learning if buildings have to be closed due to health- or weather-related events.

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Already one of the seven Midwestern states that limited schools’ non-emergency use of physical restraints and seclusion on students, Wisconsin has a new law that further restricts these techniques, while also strengthening the rules on training, data collection and parental notification.
SB 527 was signed by Gov. Tony Evers in March.
“This is a pretty tough issue, and every time we take it on it takes a long time and many redrafts of the legislation,” says Wisconsin Sen. Luther Olsen, primary sponsor of SB 527, as well as the state’s original law from 2012 on physical restraint and seclusion. “You have people coming from very different sides — advocates for students and children with disabilities, and advocates for schools. You want to get to a place where you’re protecting everybody.”
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In their federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan, seven students of Detroit’s public schools told of buildings that were unsafe and of classrooms that were unfit for learning.
The smell of “dead vermin and black mold in hallways.”
Teachers absent as many as 50 days a year.
Classes run by substitute teachers, paraprofessionals or even the students themselves.
Out-of-date textbooks having to be shared by multiple students.
Classroom temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, or freezing cold other times of the year.
“The basic thesis of the case was that these were schools in name only, and they were not capable of delivering even basic literacy instruction,” says Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel, the largest pro bono law firm in the nation and an attorney for the student-plaintiffs. “As a result, the students were not being put in a position where they could better their circumstances or where they could be meaningful participants in a democracy.”

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After the end to an unforeseen school year across the Midwest, state and local education leaders now face a new set of challenges and uncertainties as the start of another year looms. “We have been encouraging our district leaders and our school leaders to have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” Illinois State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said in May during a Facebook Live discussion organized by Illinois Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch.
“We may see the start of school [in the fall] in a remote fashion. We may see a combination where some children are allowed to come to school on certain days, or where we take the upper grades and are able to spread them out in a school building with social distancing norms. Or we may be able to come back full force.”
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In mid-March, the nation’s education community — school administrators, teachers, students and parents — began a crash course in e-learning. For state legislators, too, there have been important lessons to learn about their schools’ rollout of this alternative to face-to-face instruction, as well as many policy issues to consider about the potential fallout.

One likely consequence, for example, is a lag in student achievement, says Georgia Heyward, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has created a database detailing and comparing the e-learning plans of school districts across the country.

“I think a learning slide should be expected,” she says. “Early on, we have been seeing very few school districts that offer live instruction, where you have a [professionally trained] teacher guiding the students rather than a harried parent. “And you have very few districts doing progress monitoring of students.”

That learning slide also may be unevenly distributed. Early on, anecdotal evidence pointed to disparities in the richness of the e-learning plans being developed and implemented by school districts.

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five 15-year-olds doesn’t understand basic financial concepts. For those young people, too, some very important financial decisions lie only a few years ahead — how to save and invest, how to choose between college and work, how to borrow wisely, how to manage debit and credit cards, etc.

One response by states to the challenge of improving personal financial literacy: Require more of high schools and students in this subject area, with the hope that it lays the groundwork for long-term economic success. “Well-implemented state financial education mandates lead to a clear improvement in financial behaviors,” according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
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In Wisconsin, the path to getting any kind of dyslexia-related bill through the Legislature has never been easy, with bills in various sessions getting caught up in what has been called the state’s “reading wars” over issues such as phonics, whole language and how best to instruct students.
But proponents of getting the state, and its school districts, to do more to help young people with dyslexia and related conditions finally found some legislative success in early 2020. “It’s going to be a very good first step,” Wisconsin Rep. Bob Kulp says of AB 110, which became law in February. “[It] puts dyslexia on the radar screen in our state.”
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Six years ago, with a $2 million legislative appropriation, Minnesota launched a pilot program to help some of that state’s most at-risk students — young learners who lack stable or adequate housing. The state began partnering with schools and local organizations to provide vulnerable families with subsidies that helped pay their rent over two school years. The goals: Stabilize housing and prevent homelessness, thus improving school attendance and, over the long term, academic performance among these students.
The early results, says Eric Grumdahl, were a “powerful signal” that this kind of intervention worked.
Ninety percent of the pilot program’s students with a known housing status were stably housed. (All of them had entered the program experiencing housing instability or school changes.) Further, these young people were more likely to be attending school on a regular basis than their homeless peers.
“That encouraged us to take this to a larger scale,” adds Grumdahl, who works for Minnesota’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Department of Education.
The “larger-scale,” permanent program is now called Homework Starts with Home, and the Legislature appropriated $3.5 million for it this biennium as part of Minnesota Housing’s base budget.
The hope among legislators is to reach more young people, and to stop what can be a destructive cycle — homeless students are much more likely to fall behind and drop out of school; individuals who don’t complete high school are at a much higher risk of homelessness as young adults.
“The more children have to change schools [because of housing instability], the further they fall behind,” notes Barbara Duffield, executive director of the nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection, which advocates for policies that help these students. “They’re losing time and they’re losing coursework. At the same time, they’re also losing attachments to friends and teachers, and all of those emotional pieces of stability.”
Not surprisingly, then, the achievement gaps between homeless students and their peers are wide. Nationwide, for example, less than two-thirds of homeless youths graduate from high school on time. That compares to 84 percent among all students, and 77 percent among low-income students who have stable housing.
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Student scores in the 11-state Midwest on math and reading either remained steady or fell between 2017 and 2019, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The latest NAEP results were released in October.

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