Welcome to another installment of Answering Your ESSA Questions.
Today’s question about the Every Student Succeeds Act comes from Sheryl Santos-Hatchett, a professor of bilingual education at the University of North Texas in Dallas. It’s a tricky one.
Question: What if a state refuses to follow through on or retracts a state plan and doesn’t care about funding? Does ESSA have any teeth to close down a school district? By what constitutional provision does ESSA have any right to dictate educational law?
The short answer, to the first two parts of that question: No, ESSA doesn’t really have the teeth to force a state to follow through on its on its plan, if the state doesn’t care about losing key federal funding. And two, a school district couldn’t close down because of ESSA.
The longer answer: Technically, states don’t have to follow ESSA’s requirements. But if they decide to completely stop following the law—for example, by ditching annual testing—they could forfeit Title I funding, which helps districts cover the cost of educating students in poverty.
Or, as this department FAQ from back in 2005 puts it: “Any state that does not want to abide by a federal program’s requirements can simply choose not to accept the federal funds associated with that program. While most states choose to accept and use federal program funds, in the past, a few states have forgone funds for various reasons.” (The FAQ was actually written about ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, but the interpretation stands.)
By the same token, ESSA can’t be used to shut down a school district. The feds could decide to pull a district’s Title I money—the pot tied to ESSA and its requirements—but the district could still get state and local funds and stay in business.
The problem, of course, is that even though the federal share of funding is relatively small—about 10 percent of K-12 funding overall—it’s still a vitally important part of the funding picture, at least in most districts. Still, back in 2004, Utah seriously considered ditching its Title I funds entirely so that the state didn’t have to comply with the mandates of NCLB.
Overall, it’s just a tough public relations argument for a district or state to make: Sorry, parents, we’re saying no to extra money from the feds for poor kids. Which may be why it’s only been made rarely, and in isolated incidents.
By the same token, it’s not so easy for the feds to just take away money from a district or state. The feds will threaten, sure, and that can help trigger action. (Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team put Arizona’s Title I grant on high-risk status, because of a testing issue. The state chief, Kathy Hoffman, is trying to fix the problem.)
So what about Santos-Hatchett’s other question, on whether ESSA is even constitutional? We’re not constitutional scholars here at Politics K-12, but here’s our best explanation: The constitution calls for the federal government to “provide for the general welfare” of the country. And ESSA’s fans would say that requiring districts to test students every year in order to see where achievement gaps are falls into that bucket.
But again, complying with ESSA is only a must for states and districts if they want to hang on to federal funds.
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