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Betsy DeVos Greenlights Florida’s ESSA Plan. Now All 50 States Have Been Approved.

By Alyson Klein — September 26, 2018 4 min read
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It’s official! U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has finally given the stamp of approval to Florida’s plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. That means that every single state, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, has gotten the go-ahead for its plan.

DeVos said the department will now turn to working with states on implementation of their plans. (For more on how that will work, see this story.)

“Today marks a significant milestone in the implementation of this important law,” DeVos said in a statement. “As we move into the next phase, we look forward to working with states as they bring their plans on paper to life and use the flexibilities afforded in ESSA to innovate and improve educational opportunities for all students. As I said several months ago, we don’t evaluate football teams solely on who has the better game plan on paper. We evaluate them by what happens on the field. We are eager to see how local leaders work to improve education ‘on the field’ across the country.”

Florida first submitted its ESSA plan almost a year ago. So what exactly took so long?

The Sunshine State’s original plan tried to stick as close as possible to the A through F grading system that Florida had in place under its No Child Left Behind Act waiver.

That meant Florida didn’t want to rate schools on how well they help English-language learners achieve proficiency—an ESSA must. And the state wanted to continue to use a combined “super-subgroup” that considers the lowest-performing 25 percent of students in a school (no matter what their race, income, or disability status) rather than look at results for English-learners, students in special education, and racial minorities separately.

That flew in the face of ESSA’s requirement to take subgroup performance into account in identifying struggling schools.

The state submitted a new plan back in April that addressed those issues. It included a federal index that will be separate from Florida’s signature A-F school grading system. The new index will take English-language proficiency into account, and will be used—in addition to the school grading system—to flag struggling schools.

Florida also added language to its plan saying it will consider individual subgroup performance, not just overall school grades, in identifying schools for “targeted support” under the law.

Florida isn’t the only state that has proposed separate systems for federal and state accountability. Indiana’s state system defines high school differently than the one in its ESSA plan. And Colorado has one way of dealing with low test participation in its state system and another under ESSA. More in this story.

Despite those changes, the department still wasn’t satisfied with Florida’s plan. In fact, the feds sent the Sunshine State a letter back in June, noting that it could withhold some or all of the state’s ESSA funding if it did not submit a plan that complied with the law.

And the civil rights community wasn’t happy either. A large coalition of Latino and black activists in Florida had petitioned the federal government to reject Florida’s ESSA plan.

“The state proposes to bypass the official accountability system with a newly created shadow system, segregated from the state system for rating schools,” the state’s NAACP chapter and the League of United Latin American Citizens wrote in a letter addressed to DeVos and several members of Congress. “The intent of Congress to focus attention on the needs of struggling student subgroups would be thwarted.”

It’s not clear yet what changes Florida made to its plan to finally satisfy the feds. We’ve reached out to the state and will update this post when we have more information.

But, already, civil rights advocates in the state are not happy with the final product—or with the U.S. Department of Education for approving Florida’s plan.

“Florida’s plan pretends to but does not actually meet the requirements of the law, [to] protect our most vulnerable students, provide clear and honest information about the performance of schools, or improve the quality of education of all Florida students,” said Rosa Castro Feinberg, the co-chair of government and media relations for the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

In particular, she’s concerned that the state didn’t embrace the law’s requirement for native-language tests, and has set up a separate accountability system for considering English-language proficiency, instead of incorporating it into the A through F system most Florida parents are familiar with.

She’s hoping that the legislature—or a new governor and state chief—might be able to make changes after the November election.

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information:

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