This year, NACSA’s annual survey reached out to education advocacy organizations across the country to identify what charter school and authorizing priorities they expect to work on in the new year, as well as what they anticipate coming up during their state’s legislative session. With the COVID-19 pandemic weighing heavily on the education world, we asked specifically if, and how, the pandemic had changed each organization’s priorities and how long they anticipated the new focus to remain. The three areas that respondents highlighted as top priorities; funding equity, alternative accountability, and virtual instruction, pointed to a significantly changing advocacy landscape.
Each year, funding is one of the top two issues advocacy organizations expect to arise in their state. In 2021, it was by far the highest priority: nearly 80% (up from 48% last year) of respondents said they expect legislation to be introduced on this issue.
Much like after the Great Recession, advocacy organizations are concerned that students with the most needs will be hurt by budget cuts. But the COVID pandemic has created an additional area of concern over funding equity: ensuring that federal emergency funds are fairly allocated to the students who need it most. For the charter sector, this is especially important, as the standard ‘equity-driven’ formula for distribution of emergency aid (using Title I eligibility) risks shortchanging charter schools.
More broadly, with states likely forced to take action to address funding concerns, some advocates are hopeful for an opportunity to address long-standing funding equity issues, while others are concerned that the budget crunch, caused by the pandemic, could undo progress made to improve funding equity.
One issue that received vastly more attention in this year’s survey was alternative or differentiated accountability systems. The impact of the COVID pandemic is clear: with state assessments completely cancelled for 2019-20, and in question for 2020-21, and even potentially 2021-22, a foundational part of state and federal accountability systems and charter school accountability is missing.
Across respondents, there is a consensus that neither a full pause nor a return to full accountability are viable options, yet there is still a wide range of options in the middle. Accountability is arguably even more important during times of crisis, to ensure students most in need aren’t left behind, but there is much work to do to figure out how to adjust.
Finally, one consistent finding in our annual survey is the gap between the number of organizations that anticipate legislation around virtual schools compared to how few organizations have this issue on their advocacy agenda. This year, as enrollment in virtual charter schools and other remote learning options has surged, the share of organizations anticipating legislation on the issue has risen although the share advocating around the issue has remained disproportionately low.
Based on this data, advocates know something must be done to better regulate virtual education, but no one knows exactly how. But as enrollment surges in virtual schools, the evidence that these schools largely fail students cannot be ignored.
A NEW REALITY?
Nearly three out of four respondents said that COVID had changed their organization’s priorities for this year. Of these organizations, half said they expected their priorities to be impacted by COVID for at least a year, with one organization even noting that it expected its priorities to be changed permanently. Given the fundamental problems in our nation’s education system this health crisis is exposing, it is hard not to think that the pandemic could change education advocacy permanently.
In the midst of these challenges, our response to the pandemic provides an additional opportunity to directly confront inequalities that run deep in education policy: in funding, in accountability, and in new models of instruction.