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Every Student Succeeds Act

How Could the Presidential Transition Affect ESSA Implementation?

By Alyson Klein — March 03, 2016 3 min read
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With the Every Student Succeeds Act now on the books, is the outcome of the presidential election still relevant when it comes to the main federal K-12 law?

Yes, absolutely, as we wrote in this previous post. After all, the law doesn’t go fully into effect until the 2017-18 school year, which means that Congress may have wanted the next president to have some say in implementation, according to Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy.

But when a new administration comes in, especially if it’s of a different party, ESSA implementation could hit a few speed bumps—or maybe even go off the rails, depending on who the

new occupant of the White House is, said Michael Petrilli, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush and is now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Here’s why: The department is still mulling the timeline for ESSA implementation and hasn’t yet said what it will regulate on, when regulations will be finalized, and when state plans will be due and approved. (There’s a lot to consider, after all). So it’s all speculation at this point. But the education wonks we spoke to this for this post don’t expect that the Obama Team will get to draft and finalize all of the regulations, appoint peer reviewers, and approve state accountability plans. They’ll get to do some of that work, but probably not all of it.

That means critical steps—including approving state plans and maybe finalizing key regulations— could be up to the next president and the incoming team. And, no matter what, the next administration will be key to enforcement.

If the next president is a Democrat, Petrilli said, things may well proceed pretty much apace, although, there could be some hiccups as the new folks are getting in place and up to speed. (Unless, of course, Potential President Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders decides that Acting Secretary John B. King Jr., should stick around.)

After all, it took up to six months for key positions in the George W. Bush administration to be filled, Petrilli said. (The Obama process was faster.)

“If Hillary [Clinton] wins, most likely things proceed, but I still believe there is going to be a delay,” just because it will take a while before there are the right folks in place who can give the green light on major steps in the ESSA implementation process, Petrilli said.

But if it’s a Republican, that person’s education team will likely want to take a close look at any regulations that have been drafted and make tweaks, particularly if key ESSA architects on Capitol Hill (like Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.) aren’t happy with the direction things are going, Petrilli said.

A GOP administration is “certainly going to press ‘pause,’” Petrilli said, and carefully review what the Obama administration has put in place to make sure it jibes with their own K-12 principles.

And if the next president is Republican candidate Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate developer? All bets are off, Petrilli said.

“If Trump [wins], you have a real challenge putting a team together that knows anything about this stuff,” he said. The upshot? “It’s hard to imagine anybody will be ready in the spring of 2017 to receive and approve state plans.”

Not everyone agrees that the election will necessarily throw a monkey wrench into ESSA implementation. Reg Leichty, the founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy, told me previously that it’s hard to imagine a new administration throwing everything out and starting from scratch, particularly given the progress states will make independent of what the feds do this year. Instead, a new administration could initially make selective changes and work toward more significant policy shifts over time, he said.