This Summer’s ESSA News Special Edition: From Innovative Testing to School Spending Transparency to the Feds Falling Short, 10 Stories You Might Have Missed

This update on the Every Student Succeeds Act and the education plans now being implemented by states and school districts is produced in partnership with ESSA Essentials, an ongoing series from the Collaborative for Student Success. It’s an offshoot of their ESSA Advance newsletter, which you can sign up for here! (See our recent ESSA updates from previous weeks right here.)

As the summer wraps up and students, teachers and administrators head back to school, we thought it a good time to look back over the previous few months of ESSA activity to highlight any important stories our readers might have missed.

While many of us enjoyed some well-deserved vacation, ESSA implementation continued apace, with federal, state and local officials making key decisions that will impact students — and all education stakeholders — for years to come. Below, we provide brief overviews of some of the most critical developments from summer 2019.

1. Innovative assessment summer roundup

There has been a lot of discussion about ESSA’s innovative assessment pilot program over the past couple of years — but not much in the way of activity. As of late August, only four states — Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana and New Hampshire — had raised their hands to participate (and been approved by the U.S. Department of Education). Part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority program “lifts some federal requirements related to student testing and encourages models that give teachers more useful data on student learning,” reported Linda Jacobson in Education Dive in July. These four states will take part in this education department’s pilot program, which lets states use diverse assessment approaches instead of “traditional” standardized tests.

2. States, feds come to some agreements…

The U.S. Department of Education approved New Mexico’s changes to its school accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act back in July. Federal approval was necessary for state education officials to move forward with their planned changes. Additionally, Peter Christian reported for KGVO Radio (also in July) that the federal education officials approved the Montana State Office of Public Instruction’s definition of an “ineffective teacher” under its ESSA plan. In June, U.S. education officials resolved “a dispute among Indiana officials by clarifying that struggling schools within ‘transformation zones’ can be eligible to receive federal school improvement grant money beyond four years,” reported Ted Booker for the South Bend Tribune.

3. Focus on K-12 spending tracking and reporting

“Where, exactly, do those billions of dollars taxpayers annually spend for schools go?” asked Daarel Burnette in Education Week in July. “In most states, policymakers have no idea.” So they “give lawmakers a receipt that includes a summation of broad spending categories, a breakout of average salaries, and maybe a mention of whether spending is up or down.” But states’ “inability to track spending accurately was on full display this year as they attempted to … comply with a looming fiscal transparency rule under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to break out school spending amounts.” Writing here in The 74, Brennan McMahon Parton, director of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, also shared five areas she thinks states should focus on when preparing to deliver school-level spending data in their upcoming report cards.

4. State-by-state funding breakdown

In August, Andrew Ujifusa reported on how ESSA has “brought a new focus to school funding and how it works, including a new federal requirement for states to report how much individual schools receive per pupil.” However, the different ways states are approaching providing schools with this support — and how they approach special student populations — can and do diverge significantly. This is an “easy takeaway” from an Education Commission of the States study on K-12 funding in all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico, which was released in early August.

5. ESSA, other federal programs can defray CTE costs

This August in Education Dive, Shawna de la Rosa discussed how “three federal laws have an impact on CTE programs — the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.” She argued that schools that leverage these programs “can create better pipelines for students to work in careers that don’t require four-year college degrees,” at least according to U.S. Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical, and Adult Education Scott Stump, speaking in front of a meeting of state school board members this spring.

6. ESSA and the arts

“While there is a growing recognition that the arts are central to a well-rounded education, schools have been slow … incorporating that into curriculum,” wrote Naaz Moden in August. “Though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) listed the arts and music as tenets of a ‘well-rounded’ education, few state plans have formally included the arts in their accountability plans.” According to Jane Best, the director of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), “while arts educators were open to exploring the possibilities that the law created, they remain unsure as to how to insert themselves into the conversation.”

7. Using federal funding for student well-being

Andrew Ujifusa reported in early July about survey data regarding ESSA Title IV-A spending. “The questions in the survey covered Title IV, a block grant created by the Every Student Succeeds Act that can be used for helping students become more well-rounded, education technology, and school and student safety and well-being,” wrote Ujifusa. The survey found that “when district leaders are given a fair amount of discretion over federal funds, one of their main responses is that they want to focus the money on their students’ welfare.”

8. Fairness vs. equity in school spending

At the end of July, Jane Porath, an eighth-grade math teacher at Traverse City East Middle School in Michigan and an Educators for High Standards Teacher Champion, took a look at the important issue of fairness versus equity in education funding. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to track and report per-pupil expenditures on the school and district levels, a requirement in which “equity, not fairness, is the goal” — or, in other words, “spending across schools should not be the same” but instead “should be equitable.” Porath says this is a critical point that should be recognized by state education leaders, because “not all students have the same needs and equity does not necessarily mean giving the same to every student, but rather ensuring that schools receive the supports and resources needed to be successful.”

9. U.S. Department of Education finalizes “supplement not supplant” rule

In June, Linda Jacobson reported for Education Dive that the U.S. Department of Education had finalized its “supplement not supplant” rule requiring districts to demonstrate that they are using federal Title I money in addition to state and local funds, not in place of them, in their high-poverty schools. “The guidance says districts must show the methods they use to allocate state and local funds are ‘Title I neutral,’” Jacobson writes. “In other words, schools should receive all of the state and local funds they would receive if they were not Title I schools — but districts are not required to spell out which costs or services paid for with Title I dollars are supplemental.” The article also notes that,when the DOE “issued a draft of the guidance in February, advocates for increasing resources to high-poverty schools said that it didn’t do enough to ensure that schools were using federal funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to truly supplement funding for schools serving more low-income families.”

10. Study finds U.S. Department of Education “falling short” on ESSA oversight

Finally, in July, Megan Duff and Priscilla Wohlstetter provided an overview of a study they conducted with other colleagues regarding the ESSA planning process. The study concluded that the process has “veered off course.” How so? ESSA, contrary to its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, reverts much of the power to set education policy back to states when it comes to assessments, school improvement and other areas. But, they argue, the U.S. Department of Education “is still responsible for providing guidance, support and corrective action to the states,” and their “analysis found the current administration is falling short of their end of the bargain.”

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