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What’s Ahead on the Education Beat in 2020?

From school safety to the youth vote, it’s going to be a busy year.

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As the calendar turns to a new year (and a new decade, at least according to some), plenty of education issues from 2019 will be tagging along. Among them: attention to school segregation, the increased pushback to charter schools, changes in how states measure student achievement and progress under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act; and a looming Supreme Court decision that could unravel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era initiative that’s protected undocumented young people from potential deportation.

That’s a long list already. So here are three topics that would make logical — and fruitful — priorities for education reporters in 2020.

1. Who Gets to Go to College?

Big changes are coming to college admissions in 2020 because of a host of important news developments and trends:

  • Fallout from the “Varsity Blues” admissions bribery scandal.
  • Continuing legal challenges to affirmative action.
  • Debates over whether to require applicants to provide standardized test scores.
  • A little-noticed, but important, antitrust settlement against college admissions officers.
  • A presidential election in which “free college” is an applause line.
  • Changes to demographics and immigration rules that have reduced the pool of “full-pay” students.

Journalists will see these impact just about every college campus in 2020. For example, enrollment declines are not just threatening the viability of for-profit and small not-for-profit colleges, but also many public colleges and universities. And the enrollment crisis is only likely to worsen: A prominent researcher is warning of an “enrollment crash” of 18-year-olds as a result of a long-term drop in the nation’s birth rate. Amplifying concerns is a decline in interest from a group that had been used to fill in enrollment gaps in the past: international students willing to pay full freight for a U.S. degree.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed flags one especially under-reported but important college access story: elimination of the rules most colleges and universities used to follow when it came to recruiting students. Now, thanks to a December 2019 antitrust settlement, colleges are free to try to recruit away students of any competing college at any time. That opens the door for more aggressive recruiting of students who offer something extra to colleges, whether it be a wealthy parent who can pay full tuition, top academic qualifications or other talents that might enhance a school’s prestige.

Amid these continuing advantages for the elite, expect continued political battles over the true motivations behind — and effects of — efforts that will be billed as access improvements for everybody else. Which “free college” plans really provide a leg up to low-income and working class students? Does going “test optional” help the disadvantaged, or is it a bigger boon to well-resourced kids who attend schools with rampant grade inflation? What are the real impacts of college affirmative action commitments on African-American, Hispanic, Asian and white students? For more questions to ask and consider, listen to my EWA Radio podcast interview with author Paul Tough (“The Years That Matter Most”) about inequities in college access, social mobility, and how some postsecondary institutions are trying to improve.

2. Decisions, Decisions

There are thousands of seats up for grabs in the fall on local school boards, which set policy for tens of millions of the nation’s K-12 students. There will also be gubernatorial races and state-level legislative contests that bear watching, as these elected officials hold the most sway over how schools are funded and the policies and regulations that govern them. (EWA is going to be tracking coverage of these key races with our new Education and the 2020 Elections Topics Page.) Those races will have far more impact on the daily experiences of students than whoever wins the White House. Additionally, congressional races can have significant bearing on federal education issues, as whoever holds the majority can either help push through a president’s pet policies or hold them back.

Election season is a great opportunity for crossover stories between the politics and education desks in your newsroom. Could the youth vote — typically defined as ages 18-29 — turn underdog candidates into front-runners? What about efforts to suppress those voters (including recent state laws passed by Republicans to block college campus polling stations in Texas and Florida)? Keep in mind that the youth vote is a powerful bloc, but it’s not monolithic. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, fewer than half of young voters identify with the Democratic Party, and less than three out of every 10 identify as Republicans.

Beyond party affiliation, pay attention to local polling data for insights into what voters overall say matter to them. And don’t be surprised when there’s overlap at both ends of the age spectrum on issues like national security, the economy, and — yes — education. It’s also worth looking at insights and trends from who turned out at the polls in 2016 and who stayed home. In the last presidential election, about 50 percent of eligible youth voters cast a ballot, on par with the turnout in 2012. And according to CIRCLE, “young people without college experience, already historically underrepresented, made up a smaller share of the young people who cast ballots than in recent elections.” Take a look at Education Week’s Citizen Z project, and The 74’s close look at Democracy Prep, where civics education is an instructional priority. Among the stories to be told: How are schools preparing students to be informed voters? What does student activism look like right now on college campuses? How are campus administrations addressing challenges related to free speech and inclusivity?

3. What Makes a School ‘Safe’?

It’s not unreasonable to expect accountability and transparency on the district policies and practices intended to maintain students’ well-being every day, and not just when it comes to preventing a campus shooting. But increasingly, the fear of those kinds of worst-case scenarios — no matter how statistically rare — are driving public opinion and spurring massive, billion-dollar investments in what critics call the “hardening” of public schools. The pushback to measures like ramping up student surveillance — arguably at a cost to personal privacy — is likely to continue to be a big story heading into the new year. (Take a look at blogger Audrey Watters’ extensive list of education technology missteps from the past decade.)

At the same time, education reporters should be looking for stories that address other aspects of school climate and safety, from revamping discipline policies to adding social-emotional learning programs aimed at helping more kids identify when they’re struggling and giving them better tools to change their own behavior and seek out adult help. This is not unrelated to efforts to identify young people who are at risk of turning to violence — including potential school shooters. As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Parkland shooting detailed, cracks in the school district’s disciplinary and student support systems led to multiple missed red flags about the shooter’s increasingly erratic behavior.

As we discussed at length at EWA’s National Seminar last spring, there’s a human capital factor to all of these investments, and key players like guidance counselors are often in short supply. (Here’s more from my EWA colleague Pressley Frevert on that front.) Another factor in student well-being: campus facilities. The nonprofit 21st Century Schools Fund’s State of Our Schools report details risks associated with antiquated campus facilities, including classrooms with inadequate heating and cooling, along with state-by-state data. Take a look at a 2018 project by the Philadelphia Inquirer and recent reporting by The Baltimore Sun, among others.