September 30, 2019

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GUEST POST: Advanced Placement: A low-key engine of school renewal

With Congress in recess we are giving you a break from our usual Hill-related content and sharing a great read from our friends Chester E. Finn, Jr. & Andrew E. Scanlan at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. 

The glum news that average SAT scores dropped again this year finds the College Board again trying to explain that the fall is due to more and more diverse students taking these tests. That may be partly true but it doesn’t solve the problem of under preparedness for what follow high school. Nor is SAT necessarily the best gauge to use. While its scores signal that a student is (or isn’t) ready to enter college, the Advanced Placement (AP) program, also run by the College Board, helps students master college-level courses before they even get there. 

Six decades old and now engaging nearly three million students who sit for some five million exams every year, AP has quietly worked its way into the offerings of most U.S. public and private high schools, the policies of many states and districts, the admissions and placement decisions of hundreds of universities, the educational aspirations of countless families, and the academic programs of innumerable college students. As we explore in our new book, Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present and Future of Advanced Placement, preparing these young people to succeed on the tests (scored from 1 to 5, with 3 or better deemed “qualifying”) is a major objective for teachers, students, and families, as well as education leaders who view a robust AP program as a key component of a topflight school system.

District and school leaders have plenty of reasons to offer AP and encourage more young people to take its courses. But what makes AP stand out from all the other reforms, interventions, and silver bullets, including such competitors as dual credit? We count four big advantages in embracing AP.

First, its successful completion yields tangible benefits for the young people who participate, particularly those who also score at least a 3 on the exams. Achieving such a “qualifying score” gives youngsters a good shot at arriving in college with credit already established and/or waiving out of boring freshmen courses—possibly earning their degrees faster and cheaper. Participants gain valuable study skills and may get a welcome boost in their admissions odds, perhaps including better colleges than they would otherwise have applied to. Its courses are also an antidote to senior-year boredom, a source of stimulation and rigor for high-achieving students, and a source of confidence that yes, one is indeed “college material.”

Second, many teachers find valuable colleagueship, professional development, and intellectual stimulation from a nationwide AP network that includes peers in thousands of schools as well as university professors. They get together in June to score the exams; they take part in week-long summer workshops; and their participation in lively virtual networks offers myriad ways to compare notes, pick up tips, borrow lesson plans, and get suggestions for additional research by students who want to dig deeper. It’s not unusual to hear teachers say that an AP workshop rejuvenated and enhanced their work as educators and some go back again and again.

Third, Advanced Placement is private, run by the non-profit, non-partisan College Board and thus largely immune to political infighting. It’s not imposed by the federal or state government, and many superintendents and principals have come to view it as an effective tool for improving education at the system and building levels—a toning up effect on entire high schools that, if well-orchestrated, may trigger improvements in “feeder” middle schools as well. Besides better serving smart kids and conferring additional curricular choices, it contributes to raising academic standards and rigor; attracting and retaining eager, knowledgeable teachers; and developing curricula and assessments that can be compared across districts and states. Above all, AP has become a serious player in the national effort to enhance educational opportunities—and a real booster rocket for disadvantaged youngsters.

Fourth, Advanced Placement has always included an external exam that’s anonymously scored and it has successfully maintained a “gold standard” of rigor even as it comes closer than anything else to a high-quality national curriculum at the high-school level. Its expectations are the same in rural Kansas as in the suburbs of Boston. Indeed, the most oft-heard response of politicians is, “We want more of it in more schools and we want more kids to participate in it.” Yet politicians have essentially no role in what it teaches, how it tests, or who scores what.

 We heard time and time again from superintendents and principals that a well-functioning AP program can be an engine of high-school improvement that raises expectations among staff, students, and families. But that doesn’t make it easy to maintain a robust AP program in one’s school or district. Much else needs to be aligned, perhaps above all a culture of inclusion, rigor, and academic seriousness, plus stable, committed leadership and eager, well-prepared teachers. Even then, it’s far easier to offer the courses than to help kids prepare to ace the May exams—a challenge that’s intensified if middle schools are lacking and youngsters’ outside lives are fraught.

 Going big on AP also poses resource trade-offs and priority issues for schools and districts. Should they instead do more for low achievers? Upgrade their CTE offerings rather than trying to boost more kids into college? Focus on dual credit instead? Can they muster the human resources to do AP well, including teacher buy-in and committed school leadership? Mandates from the superintendent set the wheels in motion but it takes plenty more to ensure swift and responsive movement on the ground.

 Fortunately, experienced outside organizations can help implant a successful AP program, particularly in high schools serving poor and minority youngsters. Groups such as the National Math and Science Initiative, Equal Opportunity Schools, and MassInsight Education have excellent track records working with school leaders, developing teachers, raising expectations, encouraging more kids to join in, and helping them to succeed. Often supported by a mix of private philanthropy and district resources, they can be great allies—as evidenced in several case studies of AP expansion efforts that we describe in the book.

Advanced Placement is more than college-level courses during high school: It can equalize opportunities and narrow the “excellence gap”; strengthen the country’s human capital and future competitiveness; and create upward mobility for able young people from disadvantaged circumstances while challenging high-ability youngsters from every sort of background. That’s a rare success story in the annals of education reform—and we need all of those we can get. 

Finn is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Scanlan is a research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

September 27, 2019

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Piecemeal HEA Reauthorization

This week Sen. Lamar Alexander released his priorities for a piecemeal Higher Education Reauthorization Act (HEA) that would simplify the FAFSA application form; allow incarcerated individuals who are eligible for parole to use a Pell grant for prison-education programs; extend Pell grants funds to short-term high-quality job training programs; and increase the maximum Pell grant award. Thus, finally providing the rest of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee with a framework for his long-awaited HEA bill, which he is desperate to pass before his retirement in 2020. Unfortunately for the Tennessee Republican, the piecemeal HEA falls short of the comprehensive reauthorization that many were expecting from the veteran Senator. In response to his proposal, Ranking Member Patty Murray of Senate HELP reiterated her stance that she is against passing legislation that falls short of a comprehensive reauthorization of higher ed law. 

While it may seem like the parties are still at an impasse, Alexander is now pushing a last ditch effort that would attach his HEA priorities with a separate $255 million bipartisan funding bill for historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions in an attempt to bypass negotiations with Senate Dems. If Alexander decides to implement this plan, he will likely get a cold reception from House Democrats who are also against a small HEA reauthorization. Regardless of what happens next, AASA will keep you abreast of any new developments.


September 24, 2019(2)

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New Guide on District Emergency Operations Planning

This week, the U.S. Department of Education, along with the U.S. Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, released a new planning guide to help districts support schools developing and maintaining customized emergency operations plans (EOPs). The Role of Districts in Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans (District Guide) delivers on an interagency recommendation from the Federal Commission on School Safety's final report to provide resources to assist schools and school districts in developing customized school EOPs with their community partners, such as first responders.

September 24, 2019(1)

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End of Comment Period for Cat El Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

Yesterday, was the final closing date to submit comments to USDA’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on revisions to Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility (Cat El) in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Thank you to everyone that participated in the call-to-action. If you missed your final opportunity to weigh in on the importance of Cat El, don’t worry, AASA submitted comments to USDA requesting that the agency rescind its proposal and protect the more than 500,000 students who stand to lose their free and reduced-priced lunch designation as a result of the rule. To view the letter, click here.
Now that the comment period is over, it's USDA's Food Nutritional Services Agency's turn to review comments from the public and respond accordingly. No matter what happens next, we will update you on USDA's final decision and what it means for public schools.

September 24, 2019

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AASA Supports Bipartisan Safety Clearinghouse

AASA is pleased to endorse bipartisan legislation in the Senate that would establish a federally-funded and housed information clearinghouse detailing best practices for school security and design. As a result of the STOP School Violence Act, many school districts now have access to state and federal funding to improve school security. The School Safety Clearinghouse Act would allow districts to make informed decisions about how to implement this funding.

The clearinghouse would be managed by the Department of Homeland Security and include recommendations from engineers, architects, first responders, building security experts, and mental health advocates. It would not advocate for specific technologies or tools or impose any mandates on school districts.  

The legislation follows the Federal Commission on School Safety’s December 2018 recommendation of a federal clearinghouse to assess, identify, and share information on school security technology and innovation and was also recommended by AASA as part of its work with the Federal Commission. 

AASA's Executive Director, Dan Domenech, had this to say about the bill: "AASA is pleased to see Congress take this critical step to fund and house a clearinghouse providing superintendents the ability to access unbiased information about how to construct and maintain safe and secure school buildings. Creating a one-stop shop for school safety building design is exactly the kind of work that the federal government is well positioned to do to enhance school safety.” 


September 23, 2019(2)

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Important New Webinar on Educating Undocumented Students

 On Friday, October. 18 at 2 pm ET, AASA will host a webinar featuring Maree Sneed and Ray Li, attorneys at Hogan Lovells LLP. Their presentation will cover the rights of undocumented students and the challenges that they face. Specifically, they will address the legal landscape around how schools should responsibly handle campus access for immigration and law enforcement officials and how school officials should respond to information requests from immigration officials. 

The webinar will also feature Superintendent Todd Morrison from Honey Grove Texas who made headlines when he acted to support students after his small district was impacted by an ICE raid. He will share what he has learned from leading through this crisis and offer advice about what other superintendents can do to help immigrant students during this difficult time. Please click here to register for the event. 


September 23, 2019(1)

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Quick Approps Update - Labor-HHS-Ed in Trouble!

The Senate L-HHS-ED appropriations process has broken down due to disagreements about what constitutes a "poison pill," how to pay for the President's border wall and what are acceptable levels of funding for Labor-HHS-Education given the agreed upon $27 billion increase to non-defense discretionary spending earlier this summer. Specific to education, Senate Republicans have proposed level funding for Title I and IDEA which is in sharp contrast to the $1 billion increase for IDEA and $1 billion for Title I that was in the House Democrat passed appropriations bill. Recognizing the reality that none of the 12 government funding bills will be enacted before current funding runs out on September 30, the House passed a continuing resolution this week that the Senate is likely to consider next week to kick the can down the road until mid-November. It's very unclear how both sides are going to come to an agreement between now and then on these sticky funding and political issues. 


September 23, 2019

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DeVos Issues New Clarification Dual Enrollment for SWD

Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a policy document clarifying that vocational rehabilitation (VR) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds can be used to support dual enrollment, comprehensive transition and other post-secondary education programs for students and youth with disabilities. This was issued in response to questions from the field as there was confusion about whether and when these funds could be used to help students and youth with disabilities access these valuable educational options.

Specifically, the Q&A addresses the following topics:

  • The opportunity for students with disabilities to enroll in postsecondary education programs while still in high school;
  • The opportunity for students and youth with disabilities to enroll in comprehensive transition and other postsecondary programs for individuals with disabilities after leaving high school;
  • The coordination of transition-related services that students with disabilities may receive under the IDEA and under the VR program; and
  • The financial aid available to students with disabilities enrolled in comprehensive transition and postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disabilities offered at Institutions of Higher Education under the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended.

The full Q&A is available here: Link

September 13, 2019

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FY 2020 Approps Update

Congress has until September 30 to finish its appropriations process, but the Senate L-HHS-ED appropriations process has broken down and we will likely see a continuing resolution (CR), lasting until November, move forward in both chambers. On the Senate side, whatever money is allocated for our slice of the pie will be quite low as the Senate is moving a lot of money to pay for the border wall and the President's other homeland security priorities. Specifically, GOP leaders are only proposing a roughly 1 percent boost over fiscal 2019 levels for the Labor-HHS-Education pot despite the fact that the budget deal signed into law last month provides for a more than 4 percent overall increase for non-defense programs. Consequently, the rumor mill is indicating that we may receive level funding for IDEA and Title I. This is in sharp contrast to the $1 billion increase for IDEA that was in the House-passed appropriations bill (which was the largest increase to the program in more than a decade). Because the Senate cannot come to an agreement the House is already working on a draft CR that they may vote on as early as next week.

The one bright spot on funding is that there may be a mark-up of the IDEA full funding bill in the House Education & Labor Committee this year. With over 100 cosponsors for the bill there is increasing pressure for Chairman Scott to hold a vote on the bill. There is currently a Dear Colleague letter being circulated urging members of Congress to ask Chairman Scott to mark up the bill. If your interested in learning more please reach out to Sasha (

September 6, 2019

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The Advocate: September 2019

Every month, the AASA policy and advocacy team writes an article that is shared with our state association executive directors, which they can run in their state newsletters, a way to build a direct link not only between AASA and our affiliates, but also AASA advocacy and our superintendents. The article is called The Advocate, and here is the September 2019 edition.

Earlier this summer, USDA released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would limit states’ ability to implement Broad-based Categorical Eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – which provides eligible low-income households with an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card that can be used at authorized grocery stores. Under current law, families may become SNAP-eligible by either (1) meeting program-specific federal eligibility requirements, or (2) being deemed automatic or “categorically" eligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant (TANF).

Originally, TANF was designed as a broad-purposed block grant to finance a wide range of social welfare activities, including government-subsidized employment, childcare and cash. By automatically enrolling TANF eligible households in SNAP, the Categorical Eligibility (Cat El) program enabled states to support families on the cusp of the federal poverty line through short-term financial crises by ensuring their continued access to food security. Cat El also benefited schools by making TANF students automatically eligible for free and reduced priced lunch.

The effect of this change on students and schools will be immense, as many families will no longer be eligible to receive free and reduced priced breakfast and lunch if the regulation passes. According to early estimates from Food Nutritional Service, more than 500,000 students will lose their automatic eligibility for free school meals as a result of the change.

Additionally, by limiting states' ability to confer Categorical Eligibility to TANF families, the NPRM could hurt schools’ Title I Funding. Under the new regulation, fewer students will be eligible to receive the FRPL designation, which is one of the key metrics the U.S. Department of Education uses to allocate funding. Thus, the NPRM presents us with a double whammy scenario that will hurt the federal school meals and Title I programs. 

Cat El policies have been in place for more than two decades. Although House Republicans tried to gut the program during the 2011 Reauthorization of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, Congress has overwhelmingly rejected efforts to make Cat El more restrictive, including during its consideration of the 2005 budget reconciliation and the 2018 Farm Bill. This USDA rulemaking is an attempt to sidestep Congress and is outside of USDA’s authority.   

Remember, in 2019 we're asking all our members to take their advocacy up to the next level. Here is your chance to let USDA know that this is unacceptable. Comments must be filed on or before September 23. To help broadcast the importance of Cat El for students and schools, you can file comments by copying and pasting this letter to the following link! If you're looking for something shorter, feel free to copy and paste an abridged template for filing comments here