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Every Student Succeeds Act

Is ESSA the ESEA Reauthorization Bill Arne Duncan Was Hoping For?

By Alyson Klein — December 08, 2015 4 min read
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So you’ve probably heard by now the bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act seeks to rein in future secretaries of education. And it would allow states to chart their own course when it comes to teacher evaluation and school turnarounds, to name a couple of policies closely associated with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and company.

But Duncan sees a lot to like in the legislation—called the Every Student Succeeds Act—he plans to say in a speech Tuesday to the Learning Forward professional development conference just outside Washington. (Read excerpts here.)

“What we’ve always wanted, what we’ve always pushed for was a high-quality law that serves students well,” he plans to say, according to prepared remarks. “And I’m proud that we’ve arrived here. This law is a good thing for our nation and a good thing for kids. ... This law locks locks in much of the vision we’ve been developing with states and local educators for the last seven years.”

Duncan’s especially excited that the bill would keep in place annual tests and enshrine in law Obama administration programs aimed at expanding access to pre-kindergarten (Preschool Development Grants), nurturing innovation in school districts (a successor to Investing in Innovation), and encouraging districts to pair academics with wraparound services.

“None of those existed in previous versions of ESEA,” he plans to say. “They’re ideas this administration put forward, and they’re in this bill. They’re here to stay.”

The bill would also call for states to set standards that will get students ready for higher education without remediation, although it’s unclear to me how that requirement will play out in practice, since the secretary of education is prohibited from pushing states to adopt a particular set of standards, either through regulation or grant competitions.

And there are many things on Duncan’s wish list that didn’t make it into this bill. They include teacher evaluation through student outcomes, dramatic turnaround remedies (or even a continuation of the School Improvement Grant program), and a requirement that higher education institutions sign off on state standards (as they must under the Obama administration’s waivers from the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act).

States may well stick with those policies anyway. More than 40 use teacher evaluations through student outcomes, and another 40-plus have signed on to the Common Core State Standards. That will be something to watch during implementation.

What’s more, the bill would seek to get rid of a statistical technique in the waivers called supersubgroups, which allow states to combine much different groups of students (like English-language learners and students in special education) for accountability purposes.

That’s something the administration blessed in waivers. But the civil rights community really hated supersubgroups because they worried they masked achievement gaps. And it was joined by former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., plus lawmakers representing majority-minority districts. (More on how the bill stacks up to waivers here.)

Plus, of course, the bill includes a host of new prohibitions on secretarial authority that aim to seriously rein in Duncan’s successors. It doesn’t sound like Duncan thinks that’s a game-changer.

“There are some people in Washington who want to make this bill about federal authority—or even my own power as secretary,” he plans to say. “I want to be clear that fundamentally misses the point. ... Our role has never been our authority, or taking power from local leaders. It’s always been about what’s expected of our kids.”

For his part, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., one of the key architects of ESSA, says the clamp-down on secretarial authority isn’t his favorite thing about the bill. But, he added, the prohibtions were carefully crafted and shouldn’t prevent the department from enforcing the new law.

But Marty West, a professor at Harvard University who advised Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. on school choice legislation, said those provisions will ultimately make the job a lot less attractive to future would-be edu-cabinet heads. (More in this story from Andrew.) And Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners worries the language could lead to lawsuits over what the secretary can and can’t do.

Some history on the Obama administration’s role in ESEA reauthorization: Duncan and company were somewhere between indifferent and openly hostile to a 2011, bipartisan effort to renew the the law, in part because it didn’t include a requirement for teacher evaluation through student outcomes. (It did have a lot of other things on their wish list, including the continuation of SIG and Race to the Top). They may be privately regretting that now.

And the administration remained largely aloof in 2013 as lawmakers considered another, Democratic-only bill to renew the law that arguably would have been closer to the administration’s initial vision than ESSA is. (More in this vintage story.)