ESSA Rules' Rollback Complicates States' Planning

Obama-era regulations sent packing by Congress

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Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump's administration recently put their own stamp on the Every Student Succeeds Act by dismantling key elements of the previous administration's work.

State school leaders say the moves won't significantly influence their approach to the law, but advocacy groups will be watching closely to see how the new, more flexible policy environment affects decisions about underperforming schools and disadvantaged students.

Congress earlier this month blocked accountability rules written by President Barack Obama's administration, while the U.S. Department of Education reduced what states must report to the federal government about their plans for holding schools accountable.

Taken together, the two moves lessen the federal influence and oversight over a law many already see as returning more control to states and districts.

Without the Obama-era rules, for example, there will be no explicit regulatory requirement for states to label all schools with summative ratings of some kind. And the new template for state ESSA plans, which replaces one set out by the Obama administration, no longer requires states to detail the input they sought out and received from various K-12 groups in designing those plans.

Some officials say they appreciate the moves in large part because they provide clarity to states about Washington's role in ESSA, and because they don't disrupt what states already are doing.

With ESSA set to kick in next school year and the state plans for the law due either next month or in September, states are largely set on their course of action and had already sought and received helpful input from education organizations and advocates, said Carissa Moffat Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"They've done all that stakeholder consultation, and quite frankly, that's made these plans better. ... What I think you will see is states going above and beyond the new template," Miller said.

But others see trouble ahead. Supporters of robust federal oversight of education accountability say the new template, in particular, has let states off the hook when it comes to providing details about key issues. They say these issues include how school improvement dollars will be distributed and how states plan to handle waivers from certain requirements for Title I money earmarked for disadvantaged students.

"For the feds to not care about that at all suggests that they're choosing to ignore portions of the law," said Chad Aldeman, a principal at the Bellwether Education Partners consulting firm and a former staffer in the Obama education department. "As an individual advocacy group in a state, you don't have nearly as much authority as people writing the checks. If the federal government writes the checks and writes blank checks, ... it doesn't seem like they're equipping themselves or other people to monitor this."

'Break This Habit'

The writing was on the wall for the Obama-era ESSA accountability rules late last year, when they were publicly targeted by Senate Republicans on a list of regulations the GOP wanted to repeal through the Congressional Review Act.

Although as of late last week Trump had yet to officially approve the move by Congress, his administration had previously signaled support for it. Education Department officials can re-regulate under the law, but they can't write substantially similar rules to those Congress just overturned—though it's unclear what that means exactly. The department has given no indication it plans to restart the regulatory process.

"The regulation violates the law and its clear prohibitions on the [education] secretary by prescribing new requirements through regulation or as a condition of state-plan approval," GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said in prepared remarks.

Critics opposed to repealing the rules have argued that they only contained necessary protections for disadvantaged students and a responsible check on state autonomy. The rules actually gave states several specific options for how to handle various parts of the law, such as the timeline for identifying struggling schools, these critics say.

However, Aldeman said that the Democrats made a reasonable but ultimately losing bet that they could use the department's power to craft ESSA rules to shape the law's impact, while not interpreting or discussing the law itself on their terms very forcefully.

"Their interpretation always depended on them being able to regulate the law. The Democrats in general lost that battle," Aldeman said.

Meanwhile, in describing the new template, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a speech to big-city district leaders in Washington last week: "Too often the Department of Education has gone outside its established authority and created roadblocks, wittingly or unwittingly for parents and educators alike. This isn't right, nor is it acceptable. Under this administration, we will break this habit."

But not everyone agrees that the new template represents a step forward. On the contrary, the American Federation of Teachers, the National PTA, the National Governors Association, and congressional Democrats claim that downplaying the importance of stakeholder engagement in the new template sends the wrong message about what should be a top priority under the law.

Mixed Reactions

Just what that means for states and advocacy groups largely depends on circumstances unique to each.

Without the Obama ESSA rules, there will be fewer requirements around the data that schools must report for various indicators of student performance, noted Daniel Sellers, the executive director of Ed Allies, a Minnesota nonprofit that advocates for educational equity.

"For us, the federal government always provided a backstop. And unfortunately, with the stripping of these regs, parts of that backstop will be going away," Sellers said.

But the new template and the repeal of the Obama ESSA rules don't necessarily spell big trouble, or changes, for Arizona, said Rebecca Gau, the executive director of Stand for Children Arizona, which backs standards and tests as tools for accountability.

After speaking with staffers in the state legislature, Gau said that the moves in Washington won't disrupt changes the state is considering for its A-F accountability system. And she said there's enough in both the law and the new template to ensure the state addresses achievement gaps, "rigorous" assessments, and other elements.

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Gau is hoping that the re-release of the ESSA plan template pushes the Arizona education department to address what she said were unanswered questions in its approach to ESSA.

In fact, Gau said she has a different worry: that a reduction in federal K-12 aid—a realistic possibility given the Trump administration's pared-back budget proposal—could reduce incentives for states to be as aggressive in holding schools accountable under ESSA.

"If you are getting federal funds, you should be held accountable," Gau said. "That's as much as a conservative principle as it is a progressive principle."

Vol. 36, Issue 25, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: March 22, 2017, as ESSA Rules' Rollback Complicates States' Planning Process
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