Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Raises K-12 Stakes in 2016 State-Level Elections

By Daarel Burnette II — September 12, 2016 7 min read
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The stakes for K-12 policy in this year’s state-level elections couldn’t be clearer: Whoever voters pick in the legislative and gubernatorial races will have significant new leverage in shaping states’ education agendas in the years ahead.

The reason is the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives state governments sweeping authority to design, among other things, teacher evaluations and school accountability systems, topics that political observers expect to dominate policymakers’ 2017 legislative seasons.

Observers wouldn’t necessarily know that, however, by hanging out on the campaign trails this year.

Aside from school finance, teacher pay, and transgender students’ access to bathrooms, education policy has mostly stayed out of the fray of this year’s topsy-turvy election cycle.

But, among education scholars, advocates, and lobbyists, it’s no secret that state elections this year matter greatly.

“It all looks huge for those of us who spend all of our time on it,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an opinion blogger for Education Week. “But when candidates are trying to convince people that they have a better idea on how to incorporate [student] growth rather than proficiency in states’ accountability systems, you make people’s eyes glaze over. That’s not something that could affect elections. At least it won’t yet.”

The Coming Wave

There are telltale signs that the volatility of education politics could crest in the coming years.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who is running for re-election, speaks at a candidate forum in Charlotte, N.C.

Legislators not running for office have in recent months bombarded the National Conference of State Legislatures with technical, in-the-weeds questions about ESSA, assessments, and accountability systems and have requested NCSL’s handful of education experts to fly out to state capitals to testify during off-season committee hearings.

“This is the most engaged we’ve ever seen legislators in education policy,” said Michelle Exstrom, the organization’s education program director. “Legislators are becoming a lot more aware of the importance of the decisions that are about to be made.”

And in some states, incumbents are experiencing backlash from parents and teachers alike over previous policy moves.

• When budget cuts to districts in Kansas and Oklahoma took a deep toll, dozens of teachers, inspired by a scrappy social-media campaign, filed to run for legislative office.

• Teachers’ unions have bankrolled ballot initiatives in Maine and Oklahoma to tax wealthier corporations and individuals to benefit school funding, and they have placed boots on the ground in Massachusetts to fight a ballot initiative that could dramatically expand that state’s charter school sector.

• In Indiana, education has gotten its front-row attention in the races for governor, state schools superintendent, and state Senate and House seats after botched test scores earlier this year led the legislature to scrap the state’s test and hit the reset button on teacher evaluations and the state’s rigid school accountability system.

“Education is such a politically volatile issue because parents and teachers historically are so intense in their attitudes toward education that it can be, for those groups, almost a single issue for them,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The regulations putting ESSA into full effect in the 2017-18 school year are being written, and state officials are still wrangling to make sure the final federal rules give them all the authority they’re seeking.

Consultation Under ESSA

But ESSA, unlike its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, requires that in developing their accountability plans, state education agencies have “timely and meaningful consultation” with their legislatures and governors before submitting their plans to the U.S. Department of Education by next summer.

Some states, such as Michigan and South Carolina, have pushed to have plans completed before the opening of next year’s legislative sessions so that the states’ lawmakers and governors have enough time to vet and sign off on those plans.

While state plans in past decades were scrutinized during sparsely attended state board of education meetings, politicians anticipate the nitty-gritty policy debates to be thrust into the public forum next spring.

State agencies are bracing for their plans to be examined by legislators for unintended consequences.

“After they received so much blowback from the public over the common-core debate, legislators are realizing that they need to be much more aware of their policy options and the details of these sorts of things,” NCSL’s Exstrom said.

By the Numbers 2016 State Elections

Up for Grabs
12 Governorships
44 State Legislatures
5,916 Individual State Lawmakers
5 State Schools Chiefs

Current Partisan Control
18 Governorships
12 Legislatures
3 State Schools Chiefs

31 Governorships
30 Legislatures
6 State Schools Chiefs

1 Legislature (Unicameral/Non-Partisan)
1 Governorship

Sources: National Conference of State Legislatures; National Governors Association; Ballotpedia

The average voter may not have heard much about ESSA or know the difference between a dashboard accountability system and an A-F system—but that could change quickly.

“These decisions right now feel very technical and abstract,” said Hess of the AEI. “But once they’re in place, and schools start getting labeled, and educators start worrying about how they perform under set targets, then, rest assured, you’re going to have much more visceral reactions.”

Shifting Responsibilities

ESSA goes a long way toward meeting state legislators’ and governors’ hunger for more control over education policy.

President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, which provided a series of financial incentives for states to tie test scores to teacher evaluations, adopt the Common Core State Standards, and institute sweeping and prescriptive school turnaround strategies, had sparked a roiling debate over states’ versus federal rights.


Over the past two years, legislators have introduced a battery of bills to dismantle accountability systems, slash away at standardized testing, and repeal what some opponents have tagged as “Obamacore.”

“No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top kept [legislators] from having to be too explicit in their positions, and it gave them the opportunity, that some of them appreciated, to blame Washington, D.C.,” Henig said. “But now they have to confront what they couldn’t so easily duck in the past: the need to take their own position. It’s one thing to say, ‘We don’t like these test-based accountability dictums coming from Washington,’ but many of them will find—and are finding—that they have to articulate an alternative vision of what accountability means. And that opens them up to having to take riskier positions than they’ve been forced to do over the last 16 years.”

That could mean some state legislatures will punt more difficult decisions like state control either to voters through ballot measures or to state boards of education and state superintendents, many of whom are eager to take back influence they’ve lost to career politicians far removed from the classroom.

Partisan Split

The majority of states’ legislatures and governor’s offices this year are dominated by Republicans, and though the numbers could change some with this year’s unpredictable election, experts warn against predicting where politicians will stand on education policy based on their party.

“As the education debate has moved to Washington in the last 15 years, it’s been easier for people to be on my side or your side,” Hess said. “In communities, you’re dealing with people you know, and you tend to cut deals.”

Strange and unlikely alliances abound: Moderately conservative governors and civil rights advocates have faced off against teachers’ unions and tea-party legislators over standardized testing, for example. And even in states with super-majorities, it’s not uncommon to see a governor veto a state legislature’s education plans.

In North Carolina, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature and governor have, for a variety of reasons, diverged sharply in recent years on long-standing education policies. This year’s combative debate between incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic rival Roy Cooper over teacher pay is a proxy for a variety of other issues, said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Voters also have deep anxieties about a shifting economy, the resegregation of schools, and a widening achievement gap between the state’s growing minority population and its wealthier, white students, all policies the state will have to confront in its ESSA plans next year, he said.

“While important, this debate over teacher pay is more symbolic than substantive,” Guillory said. “It’s time for us to have the wider debate over these much-more-difficult decisions over the future of a public education system that is...a public asset that’s important to the vitality of our communities.”


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