From Supreme Court rulings to protests, AI to school choice: 2023 rocked education

From Supreme Court rulings to protests, AI to school choice: 2023 rocked education

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It was a tumultuous year in education: New technologies, chaos erupting on campuses, the ditching of affirmative action, student loan whiplash and the rise of school choice.

And they’re not issues that are going to remain in the past, as higher education struggles with directives on diversity and protests related to Israel’s war in Gaza; AI’s evolution will continue to disrupt education across grade levels; and the Biden administration seeks to give loan forgiveness where it can.

In a year that has shaken students, educators and those who have been out of school for years, here are some of the top education stories from 2023: 

Supreme court rulings: Student loans and affirmative action 

Halfway into the year, two of the biggest higher education shake-ups happened when the conservative-majority Supreme Court ruled against student loan relief and affirmative action in the college application process.

The court struck down Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan, which would have given at least $10,000 to every borrower with student loan debt. 

While it left most borrowers to face the restart of payments this fall, the administration has been able to give targeted loan forgiveness to certain groups of borrowers.

“The Biden-Harris Administration has taken unprecedented action to fix the broken student loan system and deliver record amounts of student debt relief,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said, with the administration forgiving $132 billion in student loans so far.  

The Department of Education is working on a new student debt relief plan to replace the one struck down by the high court, but it will likely not be as universal and only go to select groups.  

Colleges are also parsing through the court ruling that said race or ethnicity could not directly be taken into consideration when determining which applicants should be accepted.  

In lawsuits against Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC) admission practices, the justices decided the schools violated the 14th Amendment

“Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the decision.

The decision caused many schools to release statements reaffirming their commitment to diversity on campus but gave no specific steps they would take after the ruling.

College controversy around Israel-Hamas war 

As the year drew to a close, the Hamas attack on Israel prompted protests both supporting Israel and against Israel’s retaliation in Gaza.

Amid an increase in antisemitism and Islamaphobia on campuses since Oct. 7, the House held several hearings. But only one received international attention: When the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) testified.

All three presidents were asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) if calls for genocide against Jewish people would constitute harassment on their campuses; each responded it would depend on the context.

While First Amendment advocates said the answers were technically correct, the responses created a huge blowback.  

UPenn’s president resigned, and the House announced all three schools would be under investigation for their learning environments and disciplinary policies. 

“The testimony we received earlier this week from Presidents [Claudine] Gay, [Liz] Magill, and [Sally] Kornbluth about the responses of Harvard, [University of Pennsylvania], and [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to the rampant antisemitism displayed on their campuses by students and faculty was absolutely unacceptable,” House Education Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said in a statement.   

“Given those institutional and personal failures, the Committee is opening a formal investigation into the learning environments at Harvard, UPenn, and MIT and their policies and disciplinary procedures.” 

School choice makes big strides 

The school choice movement gained steam in numerous states, giving parents access to government money that allows them to choose alternatives to public schools.

National School Choice Week counted 20 states in July that have passed some school choice legislation for their residents. Many of these states were able to expand charter schools, homeschooling, online schooling, magnet schools and open enrollment.  

But the big winners for the school choice movement were the numerous states that accepted partial or universal education savings accounts (ESAs). These accounts allow parents to receive a certain amount from the government each year to send their children to alternative educational environments besides public schools.  

“School choice had significant growth in 2022, but 2023 is proving to be even more transformative,” the organization said.  

The movement did hit a snag at the end of the year, when school choice advocates were not able to convince rural Republicans in Texas of the need for ESAs. This was a blow to the movement which has been working on Texas for months, and multiple special sessions were called on the issue.

However, the governor has made clear it is not the end of the policy in his state.  

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) “will continue to work with Texas legislators and at the ballot box to get school choice for all Texas families,” said a spokesperson from his office, according to The Texas Tribune. 

AI in education

Artificial intelligence in schools gained an unprecedented amount of traction in 2023.

It initially caused panic among school leadership, with multiple districts banning the popular ChatGPT at the beginning of the year.

In the months to follow, educators and policy experts have worked together to understand this technology and how it could be a benefit to students and teachers.  

While some schools have rescinded their bans, educators are still grappling with how to detect cheating with AI while making sure the technology that will likely become common in the workplace will be taught properly to the next generation. 

The Department of Education released guidelines to help schools navigate the new waters, giving seven recommendations on how teachers can make AI work for them and their students.

“There is tremendous potential for AI to be a positive force for our students and for the education system,” Cardona said in an interview, but he warned, “Without guardrails, this can a dangerous thing too.” 

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