This Week’s ESSA News: States Feel Ed Department Downsizing, Illinois Uses the Arts as Distinct School Quality Indicator, Delaware Helps Its Homeless Students

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.)

Education Week’s Alyson Klein takes a look at staff downsizing at the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos and the effect it’s having on states working to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The department streamlining includes the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees K-12 policy — including ESSA implementation — and funding.

The office, which has lost almost 14 percent of its staff since the end of the Obama administration, has also “gone through a top-to-bottom reorganization that consolidated some smaller offices within the agency and merged K-12 with the office of innovation and improvement, which oversaw charter school grants and other programs,” Klein reports.

The goal is to make the office “more efficient and to enable its staffers to look at the various grant programs it handles more holistically.” The approach represents the Trump administration’s “step toward shrinking the federal footprint on K-12 and allowing states and districts to take the lead, since they are closer to the students and, in the administration’s view, can best serve their needs.”

However, civil rights groups are worried that a smaller Office of Elementary and Secondary Education will not be able to make sure states are adhering to federal statutes regarding vulnerable student populations.

Additionally, Klein writes there are “big questions” about the impact these changes could have on state officials, who “often look to the federal government for technical assistance and to explain ESSA, a relatively new and often murky federal law.”

While some state officials say they haven’t really noticed much of a difference, others “describe long waits for answers to technical questions, harried staffers, and a lack of overall support and technical know-how, including when it comes to improving the lowest-performing schools.”

See below for more ESSA news.

Delaware districts awarded funds to support homeless students

Delaware has chosen which districts are to receive additional federal funds under ESSA to support homeless students, Delaware Public Media reports. “The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is part of the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act” and “allows districts to apply for these competitive grants every three years.” Most of the funds will be used to help identify “students experiencing homelessness and connecting them with the available services” and helping them access personal and school supplies, but “each school district also has its own creative programs.” According to Delaware Public Media, “more than 2,100 students statewide have been identified as experiencing homelessness in 2019.” In the spirit of ESSA, which gives states and districts the flexibility to try new things, Delaware school districts are getting creative in how they support homeless students. One district, for example, is providing vouchers for sneakers, which homeless students can redeem at local shoe stores.

Helping military-connected students and families

Kiera Gallagher, a teacher at Albritton Middle School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and an Army spouse, says that military students and families now have “powerful resources to help them navigate the shoals of transitioning their children to new schools.” One resource highlighted was a guide by the Collaborative for Student Success and the Lexington Institute, which “provides parents with insights on what specific types of programs work best for military-connected students as they transition into a new school district,” and as states and districts implement the Military Student Identifier under ESSA.

“ESSA requires all states to collect — and report — assessment data on military-connected students, defined to include students with a parent who is a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard on active duty, including full-time National Guard duty,” the guide states. “Gauging the performance of the nation’s 1.2 million military-connected children is vital because they move many times during their K–12 years, far more than typical American children. As a result, they are at much greater risk for uneven and inconsistent education.”

Gallagher also discusses the collaborative’s Promise to Practice effort, which “provides a macro picture of how select states, many with sizeable military populations, are addressing education quality issues in their public schools” through their ESSA plans.

The arts and ESSA accountability

Linda Jacobson reports for Education Dive that while ESSA “defines student success as more than just achievement in core academic subjects” — and also names the arts and music as examples of a “well-rounded education” — few states are formally incorporating the arts into their accountability plans. However, three states (Illinois, Connecticut, and Kentucky) are “using the law’s broader definition of student success to emphasize the arts.” Thus far, however, Illinois is the only state to specifically include the arts “as a distinct indicator in measuring school quality” for pre-K through high school, with fine arts counting “as a school quality indicator” that “will be given ‘equal footing’ with measures such as school climate surveys.”

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