The Every Student Succeeds Act has yet to debut in the classroom, and already it’s controversial among state and local policymakers.
Political observers expect all that to continue as ESSA rolls out this coming school year. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterm elections are coming to a head, with education already resonating as a campaign issue in many states and new K-12 spending plans taking effect.
At issue in many states is which branch of state government oversees public education.
State constitutions aren’t uniform or even entirely clear on that point. As state education departments put the final touches on their ESSA accountability plans last fall, spats broke out between governors, legislatures, state superintendents, and state boards of education over who should have the final word before those plans were sent off to the federal government for approval.
In the end, nine governors didn’t sign off on their state’s plan. Legislatures in states such as Washington and Utah attempted to strip state boards of their powers. And several state superintendents were replaced by their state boards of education as a result of ESSA tensions and other education-related issues in those states.
This fall, three-fourths of legislatures and 39 governor seats are up for grabs, meaning the political winds could soon shift again in some states, with potential impact on how ESSA implementation fares in the future. For example, legislative leaders in Pennsylvania have promised next year to override the policies within their state’s ESSA plan with those of their own.
And national and state advocacy groups on the losing end of fights regarding statewide academic goals and the treatment of disadvantaged student groups’ test scores have reorganized in order to better press their agendas, bolstering local chapters and launching aggressive awareness campaigns.
“The problem with devolution and decentralization is that, by definition, you’re going to get a lot of variation ... in terms of effort, political will, and the effectiveness of those efforts,” said Patrick McGuinn, a political scientist at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has studied state and federal policy and followed the implementation of ESSA.
Pressing the Reset Button
For many state superintendents, ESSA was seen as an opportunity to press the reset button on school improvement.
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Years-long battles over issues such as the Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluations had taken their toll on state chiefs, who were being squeezed by federal, state, and local politicians on which direction to take in order to improve states’ academic outcomes.
The average tenure of state chiefs today is a little more than two years, about half what it was less than five years ago. Because so many of them have been around for so little time, many state chiefs were learning about the state of their schools in the runup to ESSA. In addition, many didn’t have the political capital to push their own agendas.
ESSA requires states to engage with stakeholders, though it doesn’t define who those stakeholders need to be, or how much and what type of engagement needs to take place.
After the law was passed, education department officials toured their states, consulting with parent groups, teachers, principals, and district administrators on topics such as how to define an ineffective teacher, what new indicator they’d like to add to their accountability system, and how to rank schools.
But as state boards began to vote on ESSA issues, collegiality unraveled for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, many states’ existing accountability systems, including how they rank schools and test students, had been sealed into law under ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, and under waivers from that law.
In Colorado, for example, education department officials told local educators and parents during the ESSA development process that any changes to the accountability system would have to go through the legislature.
In addition, state education departments have struggled to collect enough reliable data to broaden their accountability systems to judge schools on factors that include more than just standardized tests as required by ESSA.
Tug of War
Early last year, conflicts emerged among government officials over the contents of the states’ plans.
The fight over Ohio’s ESSA plan got so intense that the state superintendent said it would delay by several months turning in its plan. The state chief ended up negotiating with the state’s teacher group over some of the state’s testing provisions.
After Michigan turned in its plan last spring, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican and a parent of a special education student, asked U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to send it back—something outside the authority of his office.
“What we have in our system is all these interest groups across the political spectrum that have a lot of power and say,” Calley said at the time. “There’s no organized group with PACS and electoral power in our system that represents the parents.”
In some states, legislatures and governors stripped technocrats of their power in the fallout over ESSA infighting, or tried to.
Delaware’s legislature moved to simply get rid of that state’s board, though it was salvaged at the last minute.
Indiana’s governor signed a bill that would require the state superintendent to be appointed by the governor by 2020.
North Carolina’s board of education sued when that state’s legislature handed oversight of the state’s school turnaround program and other state initiatives to the state’s elected superintendent. The lawsuit, the state chief said, held up the timeline of creating the state’s ESSA plan. A judge has yet to rule on the lawsuit.
While ESSA gives governors 30 days to review their states’ plans and provides a place on the application for them to sign, their signature isn’t a requirement. But whether a governor does sign says a lot about support for a state’s plan.
Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said in a letter to the state’s education department that the state’s plan lacked ambition and urged the elected state chief, Richard Woods, that the plan, “should be revised and strengthened.”
All of the political fallout over the plans has concerned political scientists and researchers who have studied the impact of school improvement initiatives. One of the biggest stumbling blocks the NCLB law faced, they say, may have been that state departments were laying off staff as more tasks were being heaped onto them. This could be a potential danger for ESSA implementation.
“There’s been a lot of attention to building stronger accountability systems, but not as much attention to building capacity at the state level to change the outcomes for kids,” said Tara Kini, a senior policy adviser for the Learning Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
And the new law’s implementation comes at a time when some current state chiefs have lost political capital, and when new state chiefs face a steep learning curve.
The political battles in some states also could mean that legislatures don’t aggressively fund some of the state plans’ accompanying new initiatives, or that teachers and principals may be emboldened to drag their feet in implementing the law.
Most importantly, accountability systems and school improvement initiatives take at least five years to show impact, many researchers say. Yet many legislators and governors in recent months have threatened to replace their accountability systems in the 2019 legislative session.
“What’s going to be important is whether states have a political culture and alignment of political interests that supports a relatively coherent vision of what the role of public education will be in promoting the well-being of the state,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied education governance issues.
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2018 edition of Education Week as State, Local Officials Scrapping to Take Reins Over ESSA’s Mix of Duties, Policy Flexibility