With the 2018-19 school year in full swing, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has finished approving nearly every state’s plan to implement the. But in some ways, the federal government’s work on ESSA is just beginning.
The federal K-12 law’s hallmark may be state and local control, yet the Education Department still has the responsibility to oversee the more than $21 billion in federal funding pumped out to states and districts under ESSA. That will often take the form of monitoring—in which federal officials take a deep look at state and local implementation of the law.
And the department has other oversight powers, including issuing guidance on the law’s implementation, writing reports on ESSA, and deciding when and how states can revise their plans.
Even though ESSA includes a host of prohibitions on the education secretary’s role, DeVos and her team have broad leeway to decide what those processes should look like, said Reg Leichty, a co-founder of Foresight Law + Policy, a law firm in Washington.
Given the Trump team’s emphasis on local control, “I think they’ll try for a lighter touch” than past administrations, Leichty said. But there are still requirements in the law the department must fill, he added.
“States and districts shouldn’t expect the system to be fundamentally different [from under previous versions of the law.] They are still going to have to file a lot of data,” Leitchy said.
But advocates for traditionally overlooked groups of students aren’t holding their breath for a robust monitoring process, in part because they think the department has already approved state plans that skirt ESSA’s requirements.
“They missed some really big things, and it wasn’t by accident. It was because of how they interpreted the law,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.
Specifically, he’s unhappy that the Education Department approved plans that allow states to give high ratings to schools where subgroups of students are struggling and flout ESSA’s rules for flagging low-performing schools. (DeVos and her team contend they only approved plans that comply with the law.) As of press time, only Florida’s plan was waiting for the federal greenlight.
Trump Oversight Plan
So far, the Education Department seems more reluctant than its predecessors to issue guidance on ESSA. In fact, the secretary backed congressional Republicans in getting rid of the Obama administration’s accountability regulations for ESSA.
But officials are reaching out to states and districts to figure out which parts of ESSA may need illumination through frequently-asked-question documents or other guidance, said Elizabeth Hill, a department spokeswoman.
Many states have signaled that they could use more specifics on a complex provision known as “supplement not supplant,” which is supposed to ensure that federal dollars add to, not replace, local funds, and on states’ school report cards, Hill said. ESSA added a slew of new transparency requirements to school report cards in areas such as school-by-school spending.
More broadly, the department can commission reports from its research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, and other parts of the agency, on how states and districts are handling different parts of the law.
The department has an evaluation in the works on how Title I (the main program for disadvantaged students) and Title II (the main program for teacher quality) have changed from the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act. The study will focus on accountability and teacher and principal evaluation and support, among other areas.
Also, the Education Department is examining how states and districts are spending roughly $2 billion in funding for teacher quality. And it will probe instruction at magnet programs that get a piece of the roughly $100 million Magnet Schools Assistance grants. It will also look at dropout prevention and how migrant and Native American children are being served under ESSA.
What’s more, the department will need to put a process in place for states to update their plans. There could be a slew of requests for amendments after the 2018 election, which could bring in new governors and new state schools chiefs who may want to go in a very different direction from their predecessors.
The department is planning to provide more information to states about how plan revision will work shortly, Hill said. For now, any state that wants to tinker with its plan can resubmit its approved plan to the department, highlighting any changes.
‘Bottom of the Iceberg’
Still, much of the federal interaction with states will happen through the monitoring process. For the most part, monitoring in the past has focused primarily on the eye-glazing, nitty-gritty fiscal parts of the law. That type of monitoring doesn’t take place at the highest levels.
“This is not the state chief to secretary of education. It’s the federal program director at the state level to a federal program officer at the department,” said Sheara Krvaric, a lawyer for the Federal Education Group, which works with states and districts in navigating federal policy. She called it “bottom-of-the-iceberg type of work.”
But she added, “the influence of monitoring is tremendous, because this is what you get a public report on.”
The department can—and has—used a deeper process for other programs. For instance, the Obama administration looked beyond spreadsheets in reviewing School Improvement Grants, which were intended to help turn around the country’s lowest-performing schools, interviewing classroom teachers and even parents.
And the agency can place a higher priority on certain provisions of the law. For instance, in its NCLB oversight, the Bush administration put a big focus on how states and districts were spending money set aside to help students in struggling schools get free tutoring.
The Trump team started looking into aspects of ESSA implementation during the 2017-18 school year, including accountability, school improvement, and data quality, Hill said.
California was one of the states selected for monitoring this year. State officials received a list of about 100 questions ahead of the monitoring team’s visit in July. The questions touched on everything from identification of low-performing schools to how federal funds are spent. Federal officials chose one district for an on-site visit, Los Angeles, the state’s largest. And they allowed the California team to pick a charter district for additional monitoring.
The Golden State had clashed with the Obama administration over data systems, accountability, and more. But “the look and feel of this review has changed from prior reviews,” Keric Ashley, the California deputy superintendent said. He described it as “more collegial.”
But he said the state hasn’t received its official report yet. And he said that the ESSA plan-approval process, which was also overseen by the Trump administration, was “very detailed.”
This school year—the first in which most states will have approved ESSA plans—the department will conduct a mix of on-site reviews, as well as “desk” monitoring, which calls for states to respond to questions remotely. States will get more information about how the process will work in December, Hill said.
Civil Rights Wish List
Advocates for struggling students remain skeptical of the Trump administration, but they still hope federal officials will kick the tires of state accountability and support plans during the monitoring process.
Lovell of the Alliance for Excellent Education hopes that the department will consider a host of questions such as: Is reporting to parents public and transparent? Do state letter grades for schools make sense, or are there schools that have gotten an A or B on state accountability only to be flagged as in need of improvement? How are states ensuring their districts will implement evidence-based interventions in struggling schools?
Liz King, the director of education for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wants to know how ESSA is helping states better serve traditionally overlooked groups of students.
For example, she’s interested to see how new requirements for English-language learners are working, including factoring English-language proficiency into accountability and offering some students assessments in their native language.
The law also states that no more than 1 percent of a state’s students can be given an alternate assessment, which is intended for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. King wants to know what kind of guidance states are offering districts and schools to make sure they don’t go over that cap. She’s also interested in learning how school needs are informing school improvement plans and how districts and states are helping support struggling schools.
Like Lovell, King hasn’t seen much to like in the Trump team’s approach to ESSA so far.
But, she said, “our expectation is that if schools, districts, or states are not meeting the requirements of the law that there will be intervention by the department. That’s the department’s legal obligation ... We expect this department to comply with and enforce the law.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as What’s in Store for States on the Feds’ ESSA Oversight