Your Guide to the Hurdles State ESSA Plans Have Endured So Far

By Daarel Burnette II — April 03, 2017 7 min read
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In line with the April 3 deadline for the first round of state plans to be submitted to the feds under Every Student Succeeds Act, it’s good to be reminded of all the logistical, political, and technical hurdles state education departments have had to jump through to get their plans on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ desk.

Unlike the No Child Left Behind Act and waivers under that law, states had plenty more flexibility in deciding what goes into their ESSA plans. But, as I’ve outlined in a series of stories over the past year, states, most of which are controlled by Republicans, have murky power infrastructures, thin budgets, and deep capacity challenges. This played out during town hall meetings, state board meetings, and legislatures’ education committees as the ESSA plans stumbled toward their final drafts. It’s fair to say many states’ plans may have gotten more scrutiny within the state than it’ll get from the federal peer-review process.

Here’s a rundown of some of the key issues.

Convoluted power structures: Because many state constitutions aren’t clear, legislatures, governors, state board members, and state superintendents have all made attempts to dictate the contents of their accountability plan. State superintendents, the Chief Council of State School Officers told me, are ultimately in charge. But the National Association of State Boards of Education said many state’s boards are constitutionally in charge of approving things like standards and tests. These fissures and confusion over who’s in charge have become especially acute in recent months as separate agencies have attempted to override each other when it comes to decisions over new state accountability systems. Some states, like Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, and Louisiana, had task forces established by both the governor and the state departments. In Louisiana, when the superintendents decided they didn’t like the new accountability system, they first threatened to create an accountability system of their own (not possible under ESSA law, according to CCSSO) and then pushed the governor to try to delay the submission of the plan. He ultimately failed. In Maryland, the legislature has passed a measure pushed by the state’s teacher’s union that would dictate the state’s accountability system. The governor says it will lower state standards and has promised to veto the bill.

Freshman class of Policy Makers: Half the nation’s state legislatures have at least one new education committee chairperson this year, and a quarter of state schools chiefs are less than a year into the job, according to an analysis I conducted earlier this year. That has dramatic implications for ESSA state plans. Many leaders are so new to the job they have an elementary understanding of their states’ challenges, experts and critics told me. And new leaders often want to deliver on campaign promises and dismantle their predecessors’ initiatives or roll out new initiatives that lack political support. In many instances, state leaders have punted key decision-making to lobbyists, consultants or education groups, such as teachers’ unions. In states such as Montana, North Carolina and New Hampshire, recently elected Republican state chiefs who replaced Democratic state chiefs are in the process of making dramatic changes to their predecessors’ ESSA plans.

State boards’ power: State board members in most states are now the most permanent fixture at state departments, typically serving four or more years in office, whether appointed or elected. Many of them saw ESSA, which cuts across the education policy arena, as a way to reassert their authority. In some states, such as California and New York, board members were crucial in leading ESSA discussions and requiring board approval for any final decisions. But in other states, such as Kentucky, Maryland, Washington, and West Virginia, legislatures overrode board decisions or wrote ESSA plans on their own, to the dismay of board members. Board members across the country told the National Association of State Boards of Education that they felt buoyed and encouraged this year about their role and influence over education policy thanks to more leadership opportunities and ESSA.

Stakeholder Input: Following the pitched battles over the Common Core State Standards, some states got really aggressive about including as many people’s thoughts as possible while crafting their ESSA plans. For many state superintendents, ESSA was a way to restart soured relationships with unions, parents, and other advocacy groups. Some states, such as Colorado, Idaho Michigan, and North Dakota went above and beyond ESSA’s minimum requirements, launching statewide listening tours and posting livestreams of meetings on social media platforms. Kentucky had tens of thousands of people show up to its meetings. Despite the outreach, plenty of states had trouble engaging parents, and some states didn’t have crowds show up at all, something my colleague Denisa Superville wrote about here. Some principals complained early on that since they’ll be the ones having to implement any new policy changes, they should have a voice, too. As state officials started making decisions, many district officials lashed out. Ohio’s kickback from stakeholders was so intense and broad (its plan was nicknamed NCLB 2.0) the state decided at the last minute to delay turning in the plan, deciding instead to submit the plan in September.

Budget squeezes: While districts saw an uptick in funding after the Great Recession, many state education departments did not. Alaska’s legislature cut a third of its education department’s budget, and Louisiana’s legislature considered a bill that would have gotten rid of its department (it ultimately failed). Other departments, like Minnesota’s, told me staffing has remained stagnant even during a statewide budget surplus. State departments have been cautious of adopting plans that are overly ambitious or unaffordable and some states have decided to outsource some data-collecting and school turnaround strategies . Because many state departments are relying mostly on federal money, that’s made it especially difficult to roll out new state-specific initiatives.

Capacity: Instead of focusing mainly on whether districts are spending federal money appropriately and abiding by state law, state department personnel under ESSA are tasked mainly with innovation, such as coming up with state-specific ways to close achievement gaps, improve overall achievement, and measure the performance of English-language learners. They also have to find ways to broaden their accountability systems to include more factors than just testing. Departments have long been criticized as poorly organized and thinly staffed clearinghouses, and more than a third of state chiefs have been in the job for less than a year. This matters greatly in the areas of testing, state takeover of underperforming schools, and chiefs’ political willpower to push new initiatives across the finish line.

New Accountability Systems: ESSA allows states to dramatically expand their accountability systems to include more measures of success and change the way they display school success to the general public. This portion of ESSA accountability plans (likely because it’s the most outward facing) became the most controversial in many states. States mostly are debating two different types of plans: dashboard-style plans and A-F systems. Dashboard-style accountability systems display several key indicators of success, in addition to performance on state testing. They’ve been lauded by superintendents for being more comprehensive in describing the performance of a school, but they’ve been criticized by parent-advocacy groups for being confusing and difficult to navigate. A-F report cards take several factors of success and, using a mathematical formula, boil that down to one letter grade. Suburban superintendents (many who have gotten low grades for their inability to close achievement gaps) have described this approach as oversimplistic and rife with errors. But parents and accountability hawks say letter grades are most understood by the general public and can spur districts into paying attention to underperforming groups.

Data-collection challenges: ESSA requires state departments to collect plenty more data for their accountability systems, and department officials have made known their data-collection challenges. Under NCLB, superintendents complained they were being asked to constantly fill out paperwork for federal reporting requirements. In addition, data-collection systems are antiquated—South Carolina spent more than $1 million on purchasing a new data collection system for the state—and plenty of school secretaries and technicians traditionally tasked with entering data into those systems were laid off during the Great Recession. ESSA requires reporting for new groups of students such as foster and military students, and states will need to collect data when they add a new indicator to their accountability system. During the stakeholder-engagement process, some state departments rejected proposed indicators because departments didn’t think new data would be reliable enough.

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