On Monday, the Biden administration announced that Mohave Valley Elementary School District received over $586,000 for mental health program funding. The funds will pay for up to 22 new positions.
This latest round of funding was part of over $95 million issued across 35 states. In total, the Department of Education (ED) has awarded $286 million to 264 grantees in 48 states for mental health programs.
The funding originated from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) enacted last June as part of the Biden administration’s National Mental Health Strategy. The BSCA’s primary initial purpose was to reduce gun violence in schools and surrounding communities.
Last September, the Biden administration issued nearly $1 billion through BSCA for more mental health program funding. Arizona received an allocation of over $20.8 million.
The Biden administration also issued $122 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to hire more school psychologists, counselors, and mental health professionals in K-12 schools. ED reported that, compared to pre-pandemic staffing numbers, school social workers have increased by 48 percent, school counselors have increased by 10 percent, school nurses have increased 42 percent, and school psychologists have increased 10 percent.
The Biden administration earmarked these funds for “high-need” local education agencies (LEAs), such as those with high rates of poverty as well as high student-to-mental health professional ratio, high rates of chronic absenteeism, exclusionary discipline (e.g. suspension, expulsion, seclusion, or restraint), referrals to the juvenile justice system, bullying or harassment, community and school violence, or substance use. High-need could also include those who experienced a natural or man-made disaster, or a traumatic event.
Buried within the ED guidance on usage of these funds, the agency encouraged a total overhaul of traditional disciplinary practices.
“Rather than focusing on changing behavior through punishment or removal from the learning environment, school leaders should consider adopting practices that will help educators support students by identifying the root cause of the behavior and developing effective strategies to eliminate or mitigate it,” stated ED. “Building a school culture of curiosity and growth mindset that prioritizes solution-based thinking may encourage pro-social behavior.”
Some of the punishment alternatives included “art program, mindfulness, and body movement activities.” ED also suggested that non-violent behavior be met with conflict resolution training and programs rather than exclusionary discipline.
The Biden administration left it up to each state’s education authority to determine what constituted “high need.” However, the administration noted that the state may require LEAs to describe how they promote meaningful cultural and linguistic engagement. ED further noted that school-based violence prevention programs must be “culturally affirming” in addition to supporting positive relationships, resilience, self-control, empathy, and persistence.
“SEAs may also require LEAs to describe their process for meaningful culturally and linguistically centered student, parent, family, educator, staff, and community engagement and evidence of how that engagement informed their school safety and climate plans, related policies, and strategies,” stated ED.
The ED noted that the permitted use of funds wasn’t limited to improving students’ mental health. ED noted that permitted fund usage included educator and school staff surveys, convenings, and educator outreach efforts.
ED also encouraged funds to be used to prevent and address identity-based bullying. The Biden administration now recognizes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under anti-discrimination law.
The city of Tucson is looking into potential funding options to cover the $11 million it would take to keep public transit free every year from here on out.
Prior to this year, the city used federal COVID-19 relief funds to keep public transit fare-free. When the city first announced free busing back in March 2020, the city claimed that the purpose was to avoid crowding at the farebox in addition to providing fiscal relief to riders.
Bus fares were scheduled to resume on January 1 of this year; however, the city managed to source funding for these past six months.
City officials have also sourced enough funding for the next six months. For this upcoming round of subsidies, $2 million came from new hotel and motel taxes, $790,000 came from Tucson Medical Center revenue, and $600,000 came from Visit Tucson revenue. That totals just under $3.4 million.
However, community members are saying the three-year experiment in free public transit has proven much more of a burden than a help. Many have complained that the free transit essentially aids criminal behavior and facilitates public nuisances.
Bus driver union leaders expressed concern about quality control with fully-subsidized bus fare, particularly pointing out the homeless that ride the bus nonstop during the summers to avoid the heat. Teamsters Union 104 Business Manager Kevin Hampton told13 News that free busing threatened passenger and public safety.
“We don’t want our drivers to become the transit police,” said Hampton. “We’re more interested in finding long-term solutions to combat the reasons why people want to ride the bus all day.”
Passengers have complained to local outlets that the free busing allows “too many troublemakers” to board the buses.
Public safety activists like Josh Jacobsen with Tucson Crime Free Coalition allege that free busing has facilitated drug sales, trafficking, and even usage. Jacobsen also toldKVOA that the buses also serve as convenient getaways for robbers and thieves.
“The free buses are contributing to a lot of the movement of narcotics, specifically fentanyl around our community,” said Jacobsen. “There are a lot of reports of individuals using drugs on the free buses. And the free buses also play a large role in the organized retail theft of businesses around our community.”
In December, AZ Free News reported that the council felt they would have to shift the cost burden to taxpayers to cover bus fare. At the time, Mayor Regina Romero suggested additional parking garage fees, Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz proposed an additional property tax.
The city also secured a financial partner for bus subsidization: defense manufacturing giant Raytheon. The city council noted that they were attempting to convince the University of Arizona and Tucson Unified School District to also join as funding partners.
Cost estimates for taxpayers to subsidize busing permanently ranged around $1 million a month.
Mesa Public Schools (MPS) appeared hesitant in a recent governing board meeting to discuss the secretive gender transition plan, which had been in place for years. Most parents were unaware of the plan until recently, which included an opt-out provision allowing the school to keep the plan secret from parents.
Governing board member Rachel Walden attempted to discuss this gender transition plan during Tuesday’s meeting. However, the district lawyer said that discussion of the plan constituted legal advice and would require the board to go into an executive session, out of the public’s view. The form’s promise of secrecy conflicted with Arizona’s parental rights laws.
“There is no other process that involves plans, paperwork for children without parental consent. But this issue can’t even provide parental notification?” asked Walden.
Walden clarified that, following discovery of the parental notification opt-out provision of the gender transition plan, MPS modified the form to strike the provision.
MPS has reportedly had the controversial gender transition plan since 2015. The original form asked students if their parents were aware and/or supportive of their gender transition. If either are answered in the negative, the form asks the student whether they give consent for the school to disclose their “transgender or gender nonconforming status” to their parents.
Arizona law states that parents have “a right to access and review all records relating to the minor child.”
The current version of the MPS gender transition plan looks virtually the same as the prior version, with the exception that parents or guardians will be notified of the plan if the student requests changes to Synergy, the online student information portal.
The MPS plan appears to be based on model documents. Chicago Public Schools issued a gender transition plan document with similar formatting and the same title.
Controversy over the gender transition plan surged last summer, after the district implemented new guidelines for handling transgender students. MPS defended its actions, arguing that their guidelines aligned with federal guidelines.
The guidelines included an assertion that students had the right to be addressed by their preferred names and pronouns, regardless of whether they had their name legally changed. MPS further declared that students should be allowed to use facilities intended for the opposite sex, such as restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, and single-sex classes.
Students also aren’t required to provide proof that they underwent any kind of medical treatment for gender transition as a condition of this special treatment.
“A transgender student is not required to provide verification that the student is undergoing or has undergone medical treatment for the purpose of gender transition as a condition for changing a student’s name and/or gender markers in the District’s records,” read the guidelines.
MPS also asserted that students must be allowed to participate in physical education activities and sports in accordance with their gender identity, though they could not compete in teams designated for the opposite sex in accordance with Arizona law.
The city of Phoenix rolled out a new, equity-focused internet subsidy program this week using federal funding.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a $700,000 grant through the $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The funds will provide discounted internet of up to $30 off per month for most households but up to $75 off per month for tribal land households. Eligible households must be at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego announced that 80,000 households were enrolled in the program, with an estimated additional 100,000 who could qualify.
The federal program also qualifies certain households for a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet if they contribute anywhere between $10 to $15 toward the purchase.
Those who qualify for other forms of federal welfare programs may also qualify for ACP.
The Biden administration launched the ACP through the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021. The administration brokered a deal with 20 of the nation’s main internet providers to offer ACP-eligible households internet plans for no more than $30 per month.
Effectively, ACP-eligible households get free internet initially if they sign onto the 20 internet providers that worked with the Biden administration. The providers are Allo Communications, altaFiber (Hawaiian Telecom), Altice (Optimum), Astound, AT&T, Breezeline, Comcast, Comporium, Cox Communications, Frontier, IdeaTek, Jackson Energy Authority, Mediacom Cable, MLGC, Spectrum, Starry, Verizon, Vermont Telephone Company, Vexus Fiber, and Wow! Internet, Cable and TV.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel presented the ACP grant in Phoenix on Wednesday.
Rosenworcel served as commissioner under both the Obama and Trump administrations. In a 2018 profile, the Washingtonian noted that Rosenworcel had continued her equity-oriented efforts through the Trump administration.
With the apparent lobbying efforts by these main internet providers to make ACP funding permanent, it appears that Biden’s arrangement for free internet is a limited-time offer. Nearly 18 million households have signed up for ACP.
On Tuesday, Verizon Senior Vice President Kathy Grillo warned that ACP funding was projected to run out as early as the first quarter of next year. Grillo urged for a more permanent subsidy structure for internet access.
Most internet providers set their contracts to last for a mandatory minimum of two years. The ACP subsidies will only last as long as funding is afforded to it.
Arizona State University (ASU) has replaced its in-person labs with virtual reality (VR) for its introductory biology courses.
ASU officials explained that they made the switch to increase inclusivity after marking a decline in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates. The university soft-launched the switch last spring to conduct a comparison study, with one class using VR labs and the other using traditional labs. ASU reported that “historically underrepresented” students in the class with VR labs performed better versus that category of students in the class with traditional labs.
Inside Higher Ed reported that students in the class with the VR lab enjoyed watching the cartoon animals and storylines presented, and that some cried when the fictional matriarch of a digitized dinosaur family died in one of the storylines.
Since the historically underrepresented students did well, ASU decided to transition all introductory biology classes to VR.
However, Barrett Honors students had media lab grades one point higher than the collective of students attending VR lab classes. (97 percent versus 96 percent).
The university is also rolling out a new type of introductory biology class using the VR technology that focuses more on developing soft skills.
Introductory biology classes aren’t the only use of VR at ASU campuses. The university is looking to use the technology for a wide range of other classes and programs, such as filmmaking and their Learning Futures program.
ASU began expanding its use of VR through its partnership with VR company Dreamscape in 2020.
In addition to logistical fixes with implementing VR for classes, ASU noted that it was seeking to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion arrangements: more diverse narrator voices, and more diverse avatar options to represent a wider array of the student population (such as body types, gender expression, disability).