Analysis: 4 Ways State Ed Reformers Are Keeping Up the Fight for Better Schools Under ESSA

Updated Feb. 22

The opening bell has now sounded in most state legislatures across the country — the third legislative cycle since the Every Student Succeeds Act passed. ESSA was signed into law promising to return control over education policy to the states. Some predicted that the lack of strong federal incentives anchoring policy ideas would leave the reform movement adrift. However, state reform advocacy organizations continue to prove they are established players in statehouses, bringing the voices of community, business, and civic leaders, innovative educators, and parents to debates over the direction of schooling in their states.

For more than a decade, the PIE (Policy Innovators in Education) Network has connected a growing number of those advocational voices. More than 70 statewide advocacy organizations in more than 34 states, along with almost two dozen national partners, work together in the network to monitor prevailing trends at the state and national levels. At the start of each legislative session, we conduct annual pulse checks on the priorities advocates set each year.

From this perch, we see nothing that we would call drifting at the state level. But we do see some interesting, and aligned, shifting. Throughout the network’s history, three issues have defined a basic education reform formula: accountability and related policies, policies that drive educator quality, and provisions for charter schools and choice more broadly. We still see advocates squarely focused on these perennial issues — with a fourth, school finance, now emerging.

Still, folks observing some drift aren’t wrong. There is indeed a showcase of new ideas that predictably floats among big thinkers when leadership shifts at the national level. In part, that’s because these policy planners aren’t tied down by pesky implementation details and can move more quickly to the next big thing. Some of their new ideas will build traction, and, as feasible policy proposals emerge, interest will coalesce. However, some of these notions just won’t sell in Topeka, Tulsa, or Toledo, and therefore won’t ever emerge on many state legislative calendars.

On school finance systems, however, a pulse check for 2018 shows that stable economies seem to be providing opportunities for improvements — and advocates are paying attention. School finance is one of the toughest advocacy issues to advance, given its complexity. It’s even tougher in lean budget years, when changing funding formulas creates a zero-sum game. This year, more than 20 organizations in 17 states have said fiscal issues are a top priority, targeting improved transparency and more equitable funding formulas.

Is accountability passé? Hardly. With ESSA plans playing out, it’s no surprise that almost every advocacy organization in our network tells us it is at least watching this issue carefully in 2018. It’s either a top priority or on the to-do list for advocates in 26 states. Many of these same organizations first led the fight for standards, then for aligned assessments. That’s hardly a surprise: It’s how sensible accountability systems are built.

Here’s an example of where the dialogue drifts more quickly at the national level than in the states. Just tracking national conversations, one might think that commitment to standards has faded entirely, replaced with buzz about student-centered instruction. At the state level, interest in the latter is peaking, though state advocates still have threads to tie up on standards and aligned assessments (which topped the priority list in 2014). Still, this year, these issues are a priority in 19 states.

Educator policy is another topic that’s no longer trending nationally but still retains the attention, like other systemic policy issues, of state advocates. Eighteen states are planning to actively engage, and almost all are still watching this issue. We do see a broader range of ideas emerging; targets include changing licensure structures, improving equity of teacher distribution, and diversifying the field.

A significant increase in focus on college and career readiness is also a sensible evolution. The shift here is that more advocates are paying attention to the career side of the equation. This issue is on the to-do list in 20 states, with policy options to provide students with rigorous course options, including dual credit and advanced coursework, laying the tracks for career pathways programs.

Two policy areas that some expected to shift significantly under this administration are charters and choice. Work here remains steady: Choice-related policy enjoys the same support from advocates who have always led on these issues. Advocates are prioritizing work on choice policy in 18 states. Meanwhile, charters are an action item in 18 network states, and 17 more advocates in 14 states are watching the issue carefully. Resource equity is increasingly a focus — including fairer funding mechanisms and improved access to facilities and transportation for students enrolled in charter schools. In general, there’s a good amount of overlap on support for charters and choice, though there are many states where one issue is in play but not the other. The big shift here is summed up succinctly by Derrell Bradford: “Future fights won’t be over choice or no choice but, instead, over how much choice and for whom.”

The bottom line: At the state level, advocates largely row in the same direction on education reform because supporting organizations and associations like PIE Network keep them connecting, helping them share priorities and spread ideas, resources, and tools across state lines to make them work better. That effort happens in ways that are more iterative and adaptive than the top-down flow of federal policy.

One note: Whenever we share insights about state policy trends, several caveats are important. Priorities can shift from offense to defense in any legislative cycle; opponents can move in any year to reverse the work of previous sessions, which is why “watching” is an active verb among advocates. Indeed, sometimes the toughest work advocates do is to block bad stuff — which can mean a year when nothing much happens is actually a pretty big win.

In the end, laws don’t improve schools; people do. Sometimes the most important work advocates can do is blocking and tackling, clearing the path for talented educators running great schools.

Suzanne Tacheny Kubach is executive director of the PIE (Policy Innovators in Education) Network.

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