In the past few years, the education sector has experienced a slew of policy changes that impacted district's local practices, expenses and daily operations. The COVID-19 pandemic, a new presidential administration and major U.S. Supreme Court cases only exacerbated the shifting landscape.
This flux in national and state policies, lawsuits challenging them and the trickle down effect on district actions is expected to continue into 2024.
As the year kicks off, the following four policy issues will be key for administrators to monitor as the K-12 sector grapples with what's next.
The civil rights law protecting students from sex discrimination in federally funded education programs continues to be controversial at every level of government.,
Democrat and Republican lawmakers disagree on whether Title IX protects LGBTQ+ students from sex discrimination and, if so, how to equitably apply the law to LGBTQ+ and cisgender students.
The U.S. Education Department under President Joe Biden, however, has made its stance clear through two regulatory proposals that together would protect LGBTQ+ students for the first time under federal educational law and give schools a framework for how to navigate transgender student participation on athletic teams.
Those proposals are now expected to be finalized in March, although the date for final Title IX rules has continued to be a moving target. In the meantime — and potentially even if and when LGBTQ+ protections are cemented into regulation — districts will have to navigate the department's policies and interpretations in various, and sometimes unprecedented, situations.
Gray areas include whether and how to facilitate transgender students' access to shared spaces, such as locker room showers and school bathrooms.
And while the Education Department has made its interpretation clear — including through civil rights investigations and Title IX resolution agreements with districts — state and local anti-LGTBQ+ policies like curriculum and pronoun restrictions can muddy the waters.
First and 14th Amendment interpretations
With those and other controversial policies in place, lawsuits on issues including Title IX, curriculum restrictions and social media practices are working their way through the courts and will affect how districts craft their policies.
Currently, curriculum restrictions vary by state and district.
In the 2023 legislative sessions, 110 curriculum restriction bills were introduced, and 10 became law, according to free speech advocacy organization PEN America. As of Nov. 2023, a total of 40 laws or policies were spread across 22 states.
The proliferation of these and related policies will likely continue in 2024. Florida lawmakers, for example, proposed a bill in January that seeks to curb the number of books parents can object to.
There are also First or 14th Amendment lawsuits pending against districts, schools, educators and boards of education, challenging many of the policies already in place in conservative states.
For example, some say that restricting access to books and regulating pronoun usage is a violation of free speech.
On the federal level and in another free speech case, the Supreme Court is deliberating two separate but related cases that could impact how school officials use their personal social media accounts.
In the meantime, the Education Department's enforcement of civil rights on such issues continues.
The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, for example, settled an investigation into a Wisconsin district in July over pronoun usage. The department found the district violated a student's Title IX rights when it didn’t properly address sex and gender-based harassment from other students and when multiple teachers used incorrect pronouns for the student.
It also settled a case in May over book bans in a Georgia district, deciding that the district discriminated on the basis of sex and race when it removed library books and after "communications at board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters."
OCR implementation of Title VI
The OCR is also ramping up its Title VI investigations into districts over their bullying policies and response. Specifically under scrutiny is whether and how districts respond to Islamophobia and antisemitism, and how they execute the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.
So far, the department has launched over 35 Title VI investigations into districts in response to increased bullying reported in schools following the Israel-Hamas conflict, including one against the nation's largest school district, the New York City Department of Education.
The federal Education Department said it plans to continue its "aggressive enforcement of Title VI" and it most recently launched an investigation into a K-12 district on Jan. 23, signaling that the department will continue this enforcement into 2024.
Federal and state testing
Also persisting into 2024 will be shifts in various assessment policies. The pandemic ramped up previously slow-building changes in testing, and although the pandemic has ebbed, state and federal policies are continuing to evolve.
The National Assessment for Educational Progress, for example, is on track for online administration in 2024. The move is part of the long-term goal for remote test administration that was fast-tracked by the National Assessment Governing Board and the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversee and administer the NAEP, after the pandemic caused the test to be scrapped in 2021.
The Education Department is also expected to continue facilitating assessment changes at the state level. In August, for instance, the department gave Montana the green light to replace its existing statewide, federally mandated annual assessment with a through-year assessment beginning in the 2024-25 school year.
A few months later, it called on more states to develop innovative assessments and updated guidance for a federal program that encourages innovative and high-quality assessment design practices in an effort to jumpstart pilots. With such support, it's likely states will continue to favor through-year testing and shift away from end-of-year assessments.
Testing policy changes have also made their way into the ACT and SAT. More than 1,900 U.S. colleges and universities are not requiring SAT or ACT scores for admissions for fall 2024, and test-optional and test-free practices will likely continue to gain traction this year.