Florida Risks Losing $1.1 Billion in Federal Funds Over ESSA Spat

By Daarel Burnette II — July 23, 2018 2 min read
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When the Every Student Succeeds Act was first passed in late 2015, Florida officials pledged that they’ll do everything in their power to keep their long-standing accountability system mostly intact.

That’s despite the fact that the federal law has several new requirements that states must abide by. They include factoring in the test scores of more student subgroups along with English-language learners’ proficiency scores, and conducting state assessments in some students’ native language, none of which Florida currently does.

That months-long standoff now leaves Florida at risk of losing more than $1.1 billion if its ESSA plan isn’t approved by the federal department of education in the coming weeks.

Florida officials argue that Florida’s consistent expectations under its existing accountability system and aggressive interventions when schools failed to meet those expectations have led to widespread success. Why change what’s not broken? they asked.

First, Florida officials attempted to pass through a series of waivers from the law in order to win approval from the federal department of education.

But then, the state education department suddenly reversed course and tried to get U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to accept its school accountability system as is, based on its merits.

When that effort failed, the state, in its latest attempt, tried to split off the federal accountability system from the state’s accountability system.

It seems that feds still aren’t too pleased, as they articulated in a letter recently made available to the public. In the letter, DeVos gave the state until June 15 to respond. It’s not clear how the state responded, or whether it met the federal government’s deadline.

Florida now is the only state whose ESSA plan has yet to be approved by DeVos.

“We’re still working with the feds,” Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of education said in an e-mail to Education Week last week. “As soon as we have something to share, I’ll be glad to let you know.”

With the law set to go into full effect this fall, advocates for the state’s large black and Latino community are worried that the state’s plan could be rejected in the weeks before school is set to open.

Without the approval of its plan, the state faces several sanctions, including potentially the federal government witholding the money from the state.

Florida’s education department receives more than $1.1 billion from the federal government to operate its department of education and distribute between its schools.

What’s most worrisome, local advocates say, is there was little mention of the letter at the most recent state board of education meeting. Local civil rights advocates have said the state has authored its ESSA plan mostly in the dark, devoid of public input. That’s led to a scramble in recent weeks by advocates and district officials to figure out what’s happening behind closed doors.

“What confuses me the most, is the [state education] commissioner has stated that her commitment for as long as she’s in office is to close the achievement gap,” said Cheryl L. Sattler, a longtime consultant for school districts. “That’s what ESSA is about, too. Why won’t we integrate that into our accountability system?”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.