Education News Round-Up

August is halfway through, and by September, the school year will be underway for most districts across the country! This week, the Race to the Top competition begins, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signs a historic teacher tenure law and much more! Read on to see what’s happening in the world of education.

New Race to the Top Competition Offers $400 Million in Grants
This year’s Race to the Top is now open! Race to the Top, implemented by the Obama administration in 2009, encourages school districts to apply for grants by submitting proposals to improve the quality of education. The initiative made available $4 billion in grants, and since then, states have changed laws, teacher evaluation systems, testing strategies and charter school policies to qualify. This year, $400 million is available to schools who apply by October 30, with grants ranging from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the size of the district. Districts who received money in the past are still eligible, and all districts must implement their plans by the 2014-2015 school year.

NJ Governor Signs Comprehensive Teacher Tenure Reform
Last Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law Senate Bill 1455, TEACHNJ, a historic effort to reform teacher tenure practices. The bill was a collaboration by various parties, including the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). This represents an important step in the cooperation of teachers unions with the government when it comes to education reform. According to a press release by NJEA:

“We’re proud of the work we did in helping to write this law,’ [NJEA President Barbara] Keshishian said. NJEA made significant contributions to the final version of the law, which dramatically reduces the time and cost of teacher dismissal proceedings, while maintaining a strong fairness standard to guarantee teachers’ due process rights. ‘The evolution of this law is a blueprint for effective public policy,’ Keshishian said. ‘Every key stakeholder — principals and supervisors, school boards, legislators, the state Department of Education and NJEA — worked hard to bring it over the finish line.”

An Entire District Becomes a Charter School System
Highland Park School District is one of the lowest performing districts in Michigan, and in the midst of a financial crisis, school officials have taken drastic steps to find the solution: They are outsourcing. Beginning next fall, the district will be operated by a for-profit charter company. Leona Group LLC will transform the entire district into a charter school system to address financial issues and improve the quality of education.

Parents and community members are concerned about the sudden changes, but many are also optimistic about the positive results a charter system will have. More than 75 percent of students in Highland Park failed the state reading exam over the last few years, and almost 90 percent failed the math test. While districts across the country are making radical reforms, this seems to be a positive alternative to closing schools or firing teachers.

Group Urges Parents to Pull Students from Classes with LGBT/Tolerant Teachers
The Illinois Family Institute (IFI) is encouraging parents to remove children from classes taught by teachers known to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), or who otherwise express support for LGBT students. This includes teachers who support “gay-straight alliances,” use LGBT inclusive materials or make their “liberal politics” known to students. The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified IFI as a hate group, and this echoes a nationwide struggle to determine how to handle LGBT issues in the classroom. Should teachers voice support, or should all of a teacher’s political beliefs be kept out of the classroom?

IFI has released a document called “Challenge Teachers, Not Books,” which contends that the problem with “liberal messages” in the classroom lies in the teacher, not in the class materials. The pamphlet is geared towards parents who are “fed up with the subtle and not so subtle messages that activist teachers of a liberal bent work into their classroom teaching through their classroom comments, curricular materials … and even their desks and classroom displays.”

Are Students Being Arrested for Violating School Policies?
The Justice Department is alleging that schools in Meridian, Mississippi are practicing a “school-to-prison” policy that violates the rights of students. After an eight-month investigation, the Justice Department concluded students in Meridian are routinely arrested for dress code violations, profanity, disrespect and similar infractions. Youth Court puts the students on probation, and any future cause for disciplinary action becomes a probation violation that requires them to serve their suspension incarcerated in a juvenile detention center.

The Justice Department outlined the allegations in a letter to Mississippi’s governor, attorney general and school officials. Though it did not discuss specific cases of students’ rights violations, it said that if the issue is not addressed, the department will sue the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services. The Justice Department letter also alleges that the Youth Court judges have consistently denied the department access to pertinent information.

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