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What ruled school news in 2017

Immigration changes and unpaid lunch debt drove debate in a year of uncertainty
  • YEAR IN REVIEW—Districts have added yoga, deep breathing, frequent movement and other mindfulness exercises as regular parts of the school day in response to a rise in anxiety, particularly among younger students.
  • YEAR IN REVIEW—Fewer students found themselves waiting for buses in the dark as schools experimented with later start times.

Serious concerns—such as student anxiety, lunch shaming and immigration policy—shared 2017’s education headlines with the whirling whimsy of fidget spinners.

But what lasting impact will these developments have? And how will administrators and policymakers handle issues that stretch into 2018 and beyond?

A look back at the year’s top stories sheds some light on the way forward.

DACA impacts students and teachers

A White House executive order to withhold federal support from sanctuary cities alarmed officials throughout the U.S. and began a wave of support for young people living under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA.

As of October 2017, the government stopped accepting new DACA applications and renewals. Congress was given a six-month period to turn temporary DACA protections into permanent law. Of the current 690,000 DACA participants, less than 0.5 percent are under 16, and 29 percent are 16 to 20 years old, according to the Pew Research Center.

With some still of high school age, school districts must work with students who are uncertain about applying for postsecondary education and obtaining financial aid. And with an estimated 20,000 educators working under DACA status, districts are also faced with losing teachers, according to Washington think tank Migration Policy Institute.

In Congress, the absence of DACA-specific legislation in the end-of-year spending bill means the debate—and the continued uncertainty for school children and staff—will stretch into 2018.

Push for later school start times

Do teens need more sleep or so they need more school? Inspired by new studies that encourage the former, districts have been debating whether to start the day later.

In 2017, schools in 19 states made the change, according to the Start School Late nonprofit. Bills focused on healthier school start times have been introduced in at least 11 states.

Increase in sufficient sleep could potentially decrease costs connected to fatigue-related car accidents, weight gain, mental illness and risky teenage behaviors, experts say.

In 2015-16, approximately 10 percent of public high schools started before 7:30 a.m.; 36 percent between 7:30 and 8 a.m.; and only 13 percent started at 8:30 a.m. or later, a National Center for Education Statistics study found.

Delaying start times to 8:30 a.m.—as recommended by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics—could add $83 billion to the American economy in the next 10 years by improving academic performance, graduation rates and job opportunities, a RAND Corporation and RAND Europe study estimated.

In the short term, the move also requires shifting bus and teacher schedules, adjusting extracurricular activities, and arranging lighting and other logistics for outdoor events with later start times.

Stopping the shame game over lunch debt

The public punishment of students with unpaid lunch debt was spotlighted in a wave of news stories about “lunch shaming,” in which food service and other staff singled out students by taking away meals or throwing food in the trash. In some cases, students were forced to wear a wristband identifying them as owing lunch money.

New Mexico passed a comprehensive Hunger-free Students’ Bill of Rights Act in April 2017 to bar lunch shaming. Legislation has also passed in California, Hawaii, Texas and Oregon, with bills pending in New York and Pennsylvania.

The federal Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 has stalled. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time is requiring districts that participate in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast programs to submit their policy for collecting unpaid meal debts.

Over three-quarters of those districts reported outstanding debt in 2016, according to the School Nutrition Association.

A recent Food Research & Action Center review found that the majority of 50 large school districts do not provide clear direction regarding certain food service procedures, leaving space for school staff to act inappropriately.

Concerns over mental and physical health

Schools continued to see a rise in anxiety, particularly among younger students. Educators pegged unstable home lives as a key cause, but also cited over-testing, social media and political upheaval as reasons for increased stress.

Districts have responded by adding yoga, deep breathing, frequent movement and other mindfulness exercises as regular parts of the school day. This increase in students’ medical needs—emotional and physical—has also convinced districts to view on-campus clinics as good investments in health and academics, according to the School-Based Health Alliance.

Attendance and academic performance can suffer when a child doesn’t receive preventative medical care—or even when a student leaves school for a doctor’s appointment. These outcomes are more likely for low-income students, the uninsured, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ students, a Hilton Foundation study of students in New Mexico found.

A 2013-14 report found 2,315 school-based health centers serve students in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Florida led the way with 322, followed by California (237) and New York (230). Over three-quarters of the clinics serve schools in which more than 50 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The total number of clinics reported increased by 20 percent from a 2010-11 census, with rural areas accounting for close to 60 percent of that growth.

And as the opioid epidemic persists, the centers are one way to provide potentially life-saving interventions.

The Hilton Foundation, Interact for Health, California Community Foundation, University of New Mexico and other organizations have developed partnerships across the country to provide drug abuse screening and early intervention services in school-based clinics.

Federal policy shifts toward choice

President Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has been top-of-mind for public school educators—from her “Rethink School” tour to advocating for school choice.

But, as a federal administrator, she has relatively less influence over some of the more contentious issues facing K12 public school systems, such as vouchers, educational standards, testing and performance incentives. Less than 10 percent of public school funding in the 2015-16 school year came from the federal government, according to the National Education Association.

DeVos supported a 2018 budget that gives public schools $1 billion to focus on choice policies, and close to $400 million for charter school expansion and vouchers for private and religious schools.

She also backed the Trump administration’s withdrawal of guidance regarding transgender student bathroom use and hired a controversial acting head of the Office for Civil Rights.

The education department is looking to narrow the scale of civil rights investigations at schools by reviewing individual complaints rather than looking at systemic problems, according to The Associated Press.


Ariana Fine, newsletter editor of DA, spends time every day seeking out the top K12 news stories to share in DA Daily.