Layoffs Will Hurt ESSA Implementation, State Education Leaders Say

By Daarel Burnette II — December 11, 2017 2 min read
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State education chiefs say in a recently released survey that their departments lack sufficient funding, staffing or expertise to carry out one or more key requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Center on Education Policy, a national advocacy group based in Washington D.C., surveyed 45 state chiefs on their thoughts about the implementation of ESSA, passed in 2015. All but one of those chiefs said staffing cuts were a major hurdle for them.

“The capacity of state education agencies is a persistent and often overlooked challenge,” said Maria Ferguson, CEP’s executive director. “The survey results suggest the demands of ESSA, coupled with a lack of clear guidance from the [federal Department of Education], are making it difficult for state agencies to show the kind of creative leadership ESSA was meant to encourage.”

I’ve written over the last two years plenty on how the dismantling of state departments’ infrastructure has impacted the crafting and soon-to-come implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The staffing cuts are the result of a series of budget cuts states have made to state bureaucracies in recent years.

Early in the ESSA development process, state leaders warned that their inability to collect, analyze and distribute a wealth of data will dramatically limit factors they chose to broaden the scope of their retooled accountability systems.

The constant churn of state chiefs has reduced departments’ political power and expertise on state-specific challenges. (Their sometimes suprisingly low salaries aren’t helping with recruitment and retention, state board members have told me.)

Nonprofits have seized on departments’ capacity challenges by offering to rank and intervene in low-performing schools.

The lack of department communication staff has curtailed states’ efforts to redesign their ESSA-mandated report cards so that those reports make sense to the general public.

State departments also are struggling to figure out how to manipulate local districts’ finance systems in order to break out across the state school-by-school spending.

And my colleague Corey Mitchell has written about states’ inability (or, in some instances, unwillingness) to comply with the ramped up requirements for testing English-language learners.

Last month, several state chiefs told me at a Council of Chief State School Officers gathering in St. Louis that budget cuts will inevitably hurt ESSA implementation.

What’s surprising about the CEP survey of 45 state chiefs is their willingness to admit not being able to carry out one or more key requirements of the law.

Only New Jersey and New York have asked for waivers from some portions of the law. At least 14 states’ plans have been approved so far. For the other states, it will be interesting to watch how U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos handles the initial applications and subsequent follow-up after the law goes into effect next fall.

Crucially, Florida—which has not sought a waiver—asks in its application that it not have to abide by large swaths of elements that seem to be required in the testing, accountability and reporting portions of the law. That has caused consternation among civil rights, ELL, and special education advocates.

The CEP survey, which can be found here, also asked state chiefs about their school turnaround approaches, whether they feel ESSA is a positive development, whether it empowers their states to make necessary changes, and whether they benefited from the law’s stakeholder engagement process.

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