Fault Lines Emerge on Putting New Federal Education Law into Practice
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was enacted into law in late 2015, marked a new era in education policy for the United States. It eliminated highly qualified teacher regulations and standardized school metrics that were not suitable for all. While annual testing will continue, student results will now be reported based on various categories including race, income, gender, and disability status. States will only be required to intervene in select circumstances, with the responsibility for improving underperforming schools falling mostly on districts.
However, a recent hearing on the implementation of ESSA has raised more questions than it has answered, causing uncertainty among educators and advocates. The speed and strength at which the federal government should write regulations and issue guidelines for the new law was a major point of contention between members of the Senate Education Committee and witnesses representing state and local government, as well as school system leaders.
Senator Lamar Alexander, the committee chairman and chief designer of ESSA, defended the shift of power from the federal government to states and districts, emphasizing that the Education Department should not act as a "national school board." He stressed that any law that is not implemented properly holds no value.
Senator Alexander referred to a letter dated February 10, signed by a coalition of national interest groups, which included governors, superintendents, teachers, legislators, school boards, and principals. The letter stated that ESSA clearly states that education decision-making now rests with states and districts, while the federal government’s role is to support and inform those decisions.
David Schuler, the superintendent of Township High School District #214 in suburban Chicago and president of the national superintendent’s association, provided some guidelines during the hearing. He urged the federal government to exercise restraint when issuing guidance and requesting data. For example, he stated that the Education Department should not request data that duplicates what a state education department has already asked for. He also highlighted the fact that certain schools, particularly in rural areas, do not have staff available during the summer, so data requests during that time would be impractical.
While committee Democrats and civil rights groups argued in favor of a strong role for the Education Department in enforcing the "guardrails" in the law, others disagreed. These provisions primarily require the reporting of disaggregated student data to track the progress of vulnerable students and intervene in the worst-performing schools in a state. They also require action when schools have high dropout rates or significant achievement gaps between different groups of students.
Senator Patty Murray, the senior Democrat on the committee, expects the Education Department to utilize its full authority under ESSA to ensure schools and states are held accountable for providing a quality education. Specifically, she wants the department to enforce meaningful accountability systems, limit the use of simplified tests for students with disabilities, and provide guidance on school interventions and supports.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts addressed the belief that the law severely restricts federal regulators. She argued that the Department of Education has clear authority to issue regulations that strengthen, rather than weaken, the accountability measures outlined in ESSA. She also emphasized the importance of monitoring the use of federal funds to improve education for disadvantaged children.
Katy Haycock, the president of The Education Trust, expressed concern that without the enforcement of the "guardrails," leaders who prioritize equity will lose federal support and leverage. On the other hand, lax enforcement will allow state and school leaders who do not prioritize equity to escape scrutiny. Haycock also pointed out that celebrating the return to state and local control ignores the progress made under No Child Left Behind and the fact that the track record of serving vulnerable children at the state and local level is not promising.
Representatives of the largest teachers unions approached the situation with caution, encouraging federal authorities to avoid unnecessary interference.
The congressional oversight on ESSA began with the hearing. Alexander promised to conduct five additional hearings in his committee, two of which will involve education stakeholders, and three will have representatives from the Education Department. The House education committee has already conducted one hearing on "implementing the promise to restore state and local control," and another hearing will take place on Thursday where King will provide testimony. Don’t miss out on stories like these – subscribe to Newsletter and receive them directly in your inbox.