If you have watched Schoolhouse Rock or sat through a high school civics class, you know how the proverbial political sausage gets made. When government operates as usual, Congress passes a bill, which the president then signs into law. The executive branch, through its many agencies, provides regulatory guidance and ensures the law is implemented as intended. Finally, those at the state and local levels use federal guidance and other signals to learn how to implement the law.
What happens when this process breaks down?
In a recent study of the ESSA planning process, our research team at Teachers College, Columbia University concluded the sausage-making process has veered off course. Compared to the previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act limits the role of the U.S. secretary of education and increases state flexibility around school improvement and assessments. However, the U.S. Department of Education is still responsible for providing guidance, support, and corrective action to the states. Our analysis found the current administration is falling short of their end of the bargain.
Our team analyzed the draft and final plans for the states that submitted their ESSA plans by the April 2017 deadline, along with individualized feedback issued by the Education Department in response to each state’s draft plan. Through these written interactions between the states and the department, we found three main takeaways that have implications for implementation moving forward:
1. The current administration is taking a laissez-faire approach to ESSA implementation. The Every Student Succeeds Act explicitly limits the secretary of education’s authority. For example, under ESSA, the secretary cannot pressure states to adopt specific standards, require particular approaches to school turnaround, or set universal academic goals (e.g., 100 percent proficiency in math and reading). However, the law does require that state standards be college- and career-aligned, that school turnaround approaches be evidence-based, and that academic goals be ambitious. It remains the Department of Education’s responsibility to ensure states have the guidance and support necessary to implement these areas of the law (and others) as intended.
All state plans were fully approved by the federal government within a few months—<i>even ESSA plans that were not fully in compliance with the law</i>."
After the Obama administration issued copious guidance around the new law—guidance which some deemed to be overstepping the intention of ESSA—the Trump administration rescinded most of the Obama-era regulations as states were in the midst of drafting their ESSA plans. In addition, the Trump administration revised the template states used to guide their planning process, deprioritizing some aspects of the law, such as expectations around stakeholder engagement.
ESSA expects states and local agencies will take on more responsibilities than they did under NCLB. With minimal guidance from the Education Department around how to approach these responsibilities, some state plans remained vague, suggesting states may be unsure of how to step into these expanded roles. Still other states took on more discretion than the letter of the law allowed.
2. The federal government is prioritizing some areas of ESSA over others. The Education Department provided every state with a list of suggestions around how plans could be improved to better comply with ESSA. This feedback took two forms: feedback focused on aspects of the law states had violated and feedback focused on areas in which states had provided insufficient information. The department was far more likely to find states in violation of the part of the law that focuses on accountability and school improvement (ESSA Title I, Part A) than other sections of the law. In fact, the department flagged 77 instances of violations of Title I, Part A compared with only five violations in all other titles combined. While this imbalance could suggest states were more compliant in other areas of the law, it could also signal the federal government was being less attentive to other aspects of state ESSA plans. Either way, we anticipate that accountability and school improvement will continue to be a primary concern during implementation.
3. States holding their ground are rewarded. Not all states took advantage of the flexibility granted under ESSA, but those states that pushed the boundaries of autonomy saw little meaningful counter-pull from the Education Department. Under No Child Left Behind, many state plans were subject to lengthy federal reviews with a long period of conditional approval before plans were deemed compliant with federal expectations. Under ESSA, however, all state plans were fully approved by the federal government within a few months—even ESSA plans that were not fully in compliance with the law. A number of states ignored federal feedback or defended their interpretation of the law in their final approved plans. While ESSA limits the role of the federal government, the law does not support states taking latitude to ignore areas of the law entirely.
Our analysis suggests the ESSA planning process emerged as a learning opportunity for the U.S. Department of Education and the states, with both sides negotiating their roles and responsibilities under the new law. Further, insufficient detail or apparent violations in state plans do not necessarily suggest states will fall short of meeting the law’s requirements. It may take time for both sides to strike the appropriate balance between autonomy and accountability, and it remains possible that the Education Department will take a more forceful approach as states begin implementing and revising their ESSA plans.
Early evidence suggests an increased federal role is unlikely.
Many states failed to provide sufficient data on teacher effectiveness and student discipline outcomes on their initial ESSA report cards, and the federal monitoring and review process for ESSA implementation remains vague. Coupled with our own findings, this growing evidence raises a number of concerns about who will hold state and local agencies responsible for enacting the new law. For every student to succeed, all levels of government need to confirm the ESSA bargain: providing states leeway to innovate while offering sufficient regulatory guidance and support to ensure states comply with the law in full. ESSA may increase state autonomy, but it does not absolve the federal government of its responsibility.