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Every Student Succeeds Act

Praise From Governors, State Chiefs Highlight Reactions to ESEA Bill

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 30, 2015 9 min read
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The final version of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which would rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was released Monday morning, and Congress is expected to vote on it soon.

We’ve got a helpful cheat-sheet about the bill’s approach to accountability, testing, the Common Core State Standards, and other hot-button issues. But what are important education advocacy and interest groups saying about the bill?

Scroll down to get a range of reaction—a lot of it is positive, but there’s still some radio silence out there from key groups.

Let’s start with groups who like the bill. If you’re guessing that organizations representing states are excited, you’re spot on.

The National Governors Association is a big fan of the final bill. In fact, the group gave the Every Student Succeeds Act its “full endorsement,” something the NGA said it has not given to legislation in nearly 20 years. The NGA said in a statement that the bill has “governors’ strong bipartisan support.”

“This bill reinforces that accountability and responsibility for K-12 education rests with the states,” said Utah GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, NGA’s chairman, in the statement. “It is a clear example of cooperative federalism, which is a core tenet of this association. It emphasizes that states and localities have the freedom to provide students the world-class education they deserve.”

For what it’s worth, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and the head of the Senate education committee, was quick to promote NGA’s backing, calling it in a statement “one more sign that there is a consensus that everyone wants this law fixed.” Remember, during the conference committee meeting of House and Senate lawmakers, Alexander said the agreed-upon deal to rewrite ESEA was “the most significant step towards local control in 25 years.” It’s small wonder that he, and the NGA, like the ESSA.

As for the Council of Chief State School Officers? Deputy Executive Director Carissa Miller said the group is “super happy” that the ESEA, which was due to be reauthorized eight years ago, is finally close to being reauthorized through the ESSA.

“We’re really pleased about the additional flexibility. It encourages states and schools to innovate, but at the same time, holds states accountable for results,” Miller said in an interview.

That basically reinforces the view of Minnesota chief Brenda Cassellius, who told us last week that, “I’m bothered when I hear people say that school chiefs won’t hold schools accountable. That’s not been evident with the [No Child Left Behind Act] waivers. ... We’ve supported our schools, and we’ve held them accountable. I hope America can see that.”

And another organization representing state leaders, the National Association of State Boards of Education, is also on board the pro-ESSA train.

Who else likes the bill? Lanae Erickson, the vice president for social policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank, said the legislation “is an impressive feat of legislative compromise, and passing it would throw some much-needed water on the political firestorm around testing. Voters want to see Congress get things done, and this would be a huge accomplishment policymakers in both parties could take back and tout in an election year. Finally, they could go home and say: ‘I fixed No Child Left Behind.’”

And Catherine Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely associated with President Barack Obama and likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, also gave the bill a thumbs-up. (However, Brown noted that she’s still going through the 1,000-plus pages of legislation.)

“What we’ve seen so far seems like impressive work by both Republicans and Democrats to come together on a bill that will be a step forward on flexibility for states,” she said. And importantly, “the bill also includes parameters and guardrails to protect low-income students and make sure accountability systems are looking out for their interests.”

In addition, Brown doesn’t think the bill’s prohibitions on the U.S. Secretary of Education’s authority will harm the department’s ability to enforce the accountability requirements. “There are unnecessary prohibitions, but at the end of the day the bill appears to allow the department to set parameters in key areas and enforce statutory requirements,” she said.

AASA, the School Superintendent’s Association, was the only national organization not to give a stamp of approval to the NCLB law back in 2001. But it’s given the ESSA a big, warm endorsement.

“This kinda takes the boot of the federal government off the neck of local school districts and state departments of education,” said David Pennington, the superintendent of the Ponca City, Okla., school district and the immediate past president of AASA. “What this will do is give us a chance have discussions about accountability where they need to be, at the state level. We have a chance to really work with state officials to come out with a system that is meaningful to the people in our states.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the bill isn’t perfect. But overall, she praised the ESSA for being a “paradigm shift.”

“It does two very important things,” Weingarten said in an interview. “It maintains the historic commitment to level the playing field for disadvantaged kids, and it stops the testing insanity, which has reduced schooling to a test score and instead enables states to re-envision accountability systems that are far more about what kids need to know and be able to do and will give educators the latitude to be able to make a difference in kids lives.”

The National Education Association, a 3 million-member union, is also a fan of the legislation. “The bill includes student and school supports in state accountability plans to create an opportunity ‘dashboard'; reduces the amount of standardized testing in schools and decouples high-stakes decision making and statewide standardized tests; and ensures that educators’ voices are part of decision making at the federal, state and local levels,” said NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia in a statement.

The Business Roundtable has also given the measure a thumbs up. The organization is glad to see the bill retains NCLB’s requirement for “challenging” academic standards and the law’s annual testing schedule, as well as disaggregation of data.

And BRT will be watching implementation at the state level closely. “CEOs will be watching states and want to be a partner to ensure they don’t lose focus on helping all students be ready” for post-secondary and the workforce, said Dane Linn, the vice-president of the BRT in an interview. That will mean a continued focus on both test scores and graduation rates.

And one important member of Congress has weighed in on the accountability provisions: Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who helped fight for stronger protections during Senate consideration of its version of the bill. He’s happy with where the final agreement landed on accountability, even though some parts of it aren’t as strong as the amendment he tried to get adopted in the Senate. (Some parts, he says, are actually stronger).

“There’s no denying that at the heart of this bill is a walk back from prescriptive accountability anchored in Washington, D.C.,” Murphy said. But he believes that there a number of protections in place for poor and minority students. “I’m going to vote for this bill proudly. I had a hard time getting to yes on this.”

Murphy’s seal of approval is key. He voted against the Senate’s version in part because he thought it was too weak on protections for traditionally overlooked groups of students.

Who’s still mulling this over?

The National Council of La Raza, which advocates for Latino students, isn’t ready to give an overall statement on the bill. The organization is still sorting through how the overall accountability system would work.

Brenda Calderon, an analyst with NCLR’s Education Policy Project, sees a lot to like when it comes to provisions for English-language learners. She’s a fan of new standardized entrance and exit requirements, new reporting requirements on long-term ELLs and ELLs with disabilities, as well as new timelines and goals for English-language proficiency. And she likes that all states will have to measure English-language proficiency as part of their accountability system.

And Phillip Lovell, the vice president for policy and advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group that focuses on high school graduation and digital learning, said he was pleased that states would be required to identify and intervene in high schools where graduation rates are below 67 percent. (The Alliance has put a particular focus on the dropout issue.) In general, he said “there’s something in this bill for everybody.” The key going forward, he said, is for schools and advocacy groups to ensure there’s sufficient support for traditionally underserved students.

“The question isn’t, will there be action? The question is, what action will there be?” Lovell said in an interview.

But it’s still pretty unclear what other key civil rights groups think about the bill.

In a statement released Monday, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said it was still reviewing the language of the final version of the Every Student Succeeds Act because “ESEA has not been reauthorized in ten-plus years, and it’s important to thoughtfully consider its impact on the diverse constituencies we represent before speaking out.”

And the Education Trust, which has called for more comprehensive and thorough accountability models from both the federal government and states, has yet to stake out a clear position on the legislation.

One person who really dislikes the bill is Sandy Kress. He’s an architect of the NCLB law, and as we noted last week, he thinks that, contra Miller of CCSSO, the ESEA bill that’s on the table simply gives states too much power at the expense of students.

“States are being given license to create systems that are significantly not based on student learning. That’s a problem,” said Kress. “This pretty much eliminates any kind of expectation for closing the achievement gap.” (Another take from Chad Aldeman at Bellwether Education Partner’s blog Ahead of the Heard.)

Also not so thrilled, for totally different reasons: Dan Holler, the vice-president of communications and government relations of Heritage Action, a conservative leaning organization. “We’re still reviewing all 1,059 pages, but there is no doubt the conference report has moved substantially to the left of the House bill, including the creation of a new federal preschool program,” Holler said. UPDATE: Heritage is really unhappy with the bill and will “key vote” it, meaning that any lawmaker who votes against would have that count against their legislative scorecard from Heritage.

Here are some reactions from other groups:

  • The Software and Information Industry Association praised the bill for its efforts to help schools get access to important educational technology

    “ESEA has been in need of revision for many years, as the education landscape has evolved dramatically since it was last updated 15 years ago,” said Mark MacCarthy, the SIIA’s senior vice president of public policy, in a statement.

  • The National PTA commended the bill for including a Statewide Family Engagement Centers program, and for Title I requirements for districts to conduct “family engagement activities.”
  • But at least one group, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, says the bill lets schools off the hook when it comes to addressing “persistently high discipline disparities” that primarily hurt students of color and students with disabilities.

"[W]ithout a mechanism requiring or incentivizing schools with discipline disparities to act to eliminate disparities, the bill does little to reform discipline and improve school climate,” the group said in a statement.

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Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.