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Every Student Succeeds Act

States Are Failing to ‘Put Students’ Civil Rights First’ in ESSA Plans, Advocates Say

By Alyson Klein — June 19, 2018 4 min read
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States are flouting the Every Student Succeeds Act’s protections for vulnerable groups of children, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos letting them get away with it, leading civil groups said at an event here Tuesday.

“We have a landscape of plans that do not meet standards [for subgroups of students] and we still have to work towards equity,” said Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League. “What I would like the department of education to do is to do what a teacher does [when they] get a paper from a student that doesn’t meet the standard. They send the paper back to the student for a do-over. ... [The plans] ought to be sent back to the states with red ink because it’s time for a do-over.”

So far DeVos, has approved nearly every state’s plan. Just four are outstanding; California, Florida, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Speakers at the event, which was sponsored by the Urban League, the Education Trust, and UnidosUS, did not get into specifics on which parts of the law states and DeVos are flouting.

But civil rights groups and ESSA’s Democratic authors have raised big questions about how states are factoring the performance of subgroups of students into their school rating systems. And these critics say states are ignoring requirements in the law to identify and intervene in any school where any subgroup of students is consistently underperforming.

DeVos, though, says her actions have been consistent with ESSA. We unpacked the legal arguments on both sides of the debate here.

When ESSA passed in 2015, it got big bipartisan support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and the Obama administration. Most civil rights groups supported the law, which got a milquetoast endorsement from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella organization. Advocates saw the need to compromise but were nervous about handing so much power back to the states. They assumed the U.S. Department of Education would do its best to look out for vulnerable groups.

That hasn’t happened under DeVos, said John B. King Jr., who served as secretary of education under President Barack Obama, and is now the president of the Education Trust.

“What we see in ESSA is a responsibility for states to protect students. It is a civil rights law with the obligation for states to protect students’ educational interests and their safety and well-being. And the question for states is, Will their implementation of ESSA make it better?” King said. “Because the reality today is that kids who need the most, low-income students and students of color, English-language learners, get less. Less access to quality pre-K, less access to quality teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to a well-rounded education, less access to counselors. To me the measure of the law’s implementation will be, Do states take action [to fix that]? And I think you’ve heard so far this morning is [that] the landscape is not promising. What we see from states is a failure to lead, a failure to put students’ civil rights first.”

Advocates have also raised concerns about a lack of detail in state plans when it comes to strategies for improving low-performing schools, ensuring low-income and minority students have access to effective educators, and making sure that low-income students have access to the same resources as their wealthy peers.

To be sure, the federal Education Department didn’t ask for those specifics.

But Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said he wishes states had taken the opportunity of ESSA to better spell out how they would meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. He urged states to go beyond the bounds of their plans in implementation, especially when it comes to fixing low-performing schools and those where subgroups of students are struggling.

“I challenged a number of state leaders back when the plans were being written, I said you’ve got a choice between vague and valor. And I remember one person whom I respect, a state board president actually, looking off into the air and saying ‘I think I’m going to opt for vague. Because if I go vague, I can’t be held accountable and they can’t sue me,’” Wise said. “You can go from vague to valor in your implementation. ... OK, I got it, you put down vague, but when it comes to the implementation of that school plan you can be valorous.”

The three groups unveiled a list of principles they want states to adopt to guide their implementation of the law, including ensuring that vulnerable populations are given the resources they need to get ready for college and the workforce; making sure schools that serve low-income students get their fair share of funding; attracting a diverse teaching force; and involving families and communities in school improvement.

So are civil rights groups sorry now that they supported ESSA in the first place? No, Wise said, noting that a Republican Congress and the Trump administration would have been in the driver’s seat on the rewrite.

“If we had waited, I’d have real buyer’s remorse,” he said. “How would you like to be negotiating an ESSA today?”

Image: Getty Images

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information: