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Every Student Succeeds Act

Trump Education Dept. Releases New ESSA Guidelines

By Alyson Klein — March 13, 2017 6 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Monday released a new application for states to use in developing their accountability plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act.

And, as you might expect, it is shorter and includes fewer requirements than an earlier application released by the Obama administration in November. The biggest difference seems to be on the requirements for outreach to various groups of educators and advocates. More below.

DeVos said the template will allow states and districts to implement the law with “maximum flexibility” as Congress intended.

“We know each school district is unique,” DeVos said in a speech in Washington Monday to the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban superintendents. “It’s fairly obvious that the challenges and opportunities of Albuquerque and Wichita don’t look the same. But neither do Miami and Palm Beach. No two schools are identical, just like no two students are alike. We shouldn’t assume the same answer will work for everyone, every time. Too often the Department of Education has gone outside its established authority and created roadblocks, wittingly or unwittingly for parents and educators alike. This isn’t right, nor is it acceptable. Under this administration, we will break this habit.”

But ESSA’s top Democratic architects—Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., were really unhappy with the template, especially the lack of a requirement to reach out to parents, educators, and advocates.

“We are disappointed that Secretary DeVos is casting aside input from teachers, parents and stakeholders and is refusing to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress intended,” said Murray and Scott said in a statement. “Without the strong federal guardrails ESSA puts in place—including requirements for stakeholder consultation and a common state plan—decision making becomes less transparent and puts our most vulnerable children at risk of falling through the cracks.”

The National Governors’ Association, the National PTA, and the American Federation of Teachers also expressed dismay over the scaled down importance of input from the education community. More below.

Why a new template? This new, Trump-administration devised template was put out after Congress scrapped the Obama administration’s accountability rules for the law, just a few weeks before the first deadline for states to turn in their ESSA plans, on April 3. States can also submit their plans on Sept. 18.

A number of states have already been thinking through the ins-and-outs of their plans using the old template, which you can find here. DeVos, however, said last month that she planned to release a new form that would ask states only for what was “absolutely necessary” to include with their ESSA plans.

So what are the biggest differences between the Obama template and the Trump template?

Outreach: The Trump template appears to place fewer requirements around how a state explains its outreach to various groups in the state for their feedback and ideas. The Obama template says states must engage in timely and meaningful consultation with stakeholders in developing its consolidated state plan. And it added that these “stakeholders” must “reflect the geographic diversity of the state.” It included a long and fairly specific list of who should be consulted, including districts, civil rights groups, employers, and higher education institutions.

The Trump template, on the other hand, says merely that states can describe their outreach to these groups if they want to, but it’s not a must. Here’s the actual language: “In its consolidated state plan, each SEA may, but is not required to, include supplemental information such as its overall vision for improving outcomes for all students and its efforts to consult with and engage stakeholders when developing its consolidated state plan.”

To be sure, educators and advocates never had veto power over a state’s plan. Still, a state will no longer be required to involve their local community in crafting their plan.

Carissa Moffat Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said states have already done substantial outreach on their plans. She doesn’t expect that to change.

“They’ve done all that stakeholder consultation, and quite frankly, that’s made these plans better,” Miller said. She also noted that the department sent around a “crosswalk” to help states work with the new format. States can still submit their applications under the former, Obama template if they include the “crosswalk.” (You can find a link to the crosswalk here.)

A number of states are already well along in writing plans, using the Obama template as a guide. That work won’t go to waste, Miller said. “Their plans are not wrong,” she said. “What I think you will see is states going above and beyond the new template.”

Overall, CCSSO thanked the department for giving state clarity. (You can read their full statement here.)

But the National PTA president, Laura Bay, is worried states won’t place a priority on reaching out to key groups, including parents, now that it’s no longer required.

“We have learned from the implementation of other education initiatives that engaging all stakeholders—especially parents—is critical, not optional,” she said.

And the NGA, which represents all governors and is choosey about commenting on executive and congressional actions, is also worried about that the requirement for outreach isn’t part of these regulations, even though it was emphasized in ESSA.

“Governors are concerned that the Department’s revised template fails to prioritize proper stakeholder engagement, even though it is a core requirement within the law,” the NGA said in a statement.

School improvement: The Obama template asked states to explain how they were distributing resources for school improvement. Under ESSA, those dollars can go out by formula or competitively. The Trump template isn’t as specific in asking for this information.

Requirements from tossed regs missing: As you might expect, the new template doesn’t ask for a a lot of the things that the previous Obama regs required, like an explanation for why a state might choose a minimum subgroup size above 30. (Explanation of that wonky term here.)

Length and organization: The Trump template is about six pages shorter, and its organized by title, as opposed to thematically.

Importantly, states don’t have to use this new template if they don’t want to. They can create their own application, with help from the Council of Chief School Officers, as long as it includes all of the same information. Some critics, though, have argued that allowing states to use multiple different applications could make peer review complicated and make the plans less transparent, since it will be harder to compare one state to another.

Another possible complication: Under the law, state chiefs are ultimately responsible for the ESSA plans, but governors must get 30 days to review them. But the first plan deadline of April 3 is only about three weeks from now. That means, technically, it would be impossible for a state to switch to this new template and then give their governor a chance to examine the plan, in its final form, for 30 days. That’s not a big deal in states where the governor and state chief work well together. (In some states, like Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the chief). But it could be a problem in states like Louisiana where the governor and chief have had some pretty big differences of opinion on ESSA.

The Education Department, though, seems to have found a workaround: States can turn in their plans to the department as late as May 3 and still make the first deadline, as long as the governor gets it by April 3. That will allow governors the full, 30-day review period.

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