Every Student Succeeds Act Commentary

Four Ways to Protect Vulnerable Students Under ESSA

By Alice Johnson Cain — July 15, 2016 4 min read

When the Every Student Succeeds Act became law last December, the education community breathed a collective sigh of relief. The bill was nearly a decade overdue after widespread dissatisfaction with its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. The conventional wisdom among ESSA’s advocates was that the new law would refocus attention on the country’s most vulnerable students.

But seven months after ESSA’s passage and a year away from its implementation, children in high-poverty schools face a new risk of losing critical resources that support their academic success and well-being.

When policy issues arise, the devil is often in the details. In this case, the detail is in the language of the bill. Previously, states were required to use $15 billion annually for high-poverty, or Title I, schools to provide extra services for high-need students. ESSA may change that. Because of ambiguity in the new language of the Title I requirement, states could try to use these critical dollars from the federal government to supplant—rather than supplement—existing state and local funding. This would leave little or no money for extra services that more than 21 million low-income students in 56,000 Title I schools need. It also flies in the face of Title I’s stated purpose: to provide all students equal access to a high-quality education.

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Given the high stakes, Congress continues to argue about how to implement the law, most recently at a House hearing late last month. In April, a panel of state chiefs, educators, and others assembled to develop rules for how states should carry out the law’s requirements. Reaching no agreement, they were disbanded. The responsibility of developing ESSA regulations thus fell to the U.S. Department of Education, led by Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

As executive vice president of Teach Plus, a national nonprofit that prepares teachers to play leadership roles in decisions of policy and practice, I have heard concerns from teachers in high-poverty schools who say the ultimate success or failure of ESSA rests on how we resolve this funding dispute. In May, more than 600 Title I teachers and principals (including a number of Teach Plus educators) signed a letter to the secretary asking him to issue regulatory language that would clarify any misunderstandings about Title I school funding prior to the law’s implementation.

In underscoring that letter and the importance of refocusing our attention on our nation’s most vulnerable students, I’d like to offer these suggestions to Secretary King:

Strong regulations are necessary to ensure Title I dollars play their essential part in fulfilling our nation's commitment to the next generation."

Don’t allow states to cut services that are making a difference in the lives of students. Teach Plus recently polled more than 1,000 teachers nationwide to ask whether their Title I schools have sufficient resources to meet students’ learning needs. Nearly three out of four responded with a resounding no. They identified a long list of unmet needs, including requests for literacy and math coaches; access to technology; and more counselors and social workers. Current Title I funding generally supports extra instruction in reading and math, as well as preschool, after-school, and summer programs that extend classroom curricula and othersupports. As any teacher will tell you, students who face obstacles of poverty need these supports. Listen to the teachers.

Don’t let Congress do your job. No matter how long the current political theater around ESSA lasts, Congress will never agree how best to interpret the tweak to the Title I language once the law is in place. The legislative branch passed the law; now, it is up to the executive branch, not Congress, to oversee its implementation.

Continue to seek solutions. The Congressional Research Service expressed concern in a recent report that the Education Department’s first proposal to regulate Title I spending went beyond what ESSA will allow. The department should now use creative problem-solving to explore possible alternatives that would meet the letter and spirit of the law.

Ask the critics for help. Leaders in education who advocate a hands-off approach say the sky will fall if the department does anything beyond sitting on its hands. Critics of the department’s initial proposal should meet the department halfway and lend their expertise to craft a workable solution in the best interest of students.

Title I schools need great teachers. Some state and district leaders are afraid the department could impose regulations requiring the forced transfer of teachers. However, Teach Plus has evidence across three states that some of the best teachers will flock to high-need schools under the right set of conditions. The Bennet-Collins amendment to ESSA, which enables states to use funds for teacher-leadership programs—including mentoring and coaching roles and professional development led by master teachers—also has enormous potential to push for a more equitable distribution of high-quality teachers based on incentives rather than mandates.

Strong regulations are necessary to ensure Title I dollars play their essential part in fulfilling our nation’s commitment to the next generation. Only then can ESSA live up to its name and offer every student a real chance at success in the classroom and beyond.

A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as ESSA Could Leave Vulnerable Students in Limbo

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