Analysis: Even With Newfound Power Under ESSA, States Will Not See Equal Success When it Comes to Education — and Will Need Serious Help to Raise the Floor

The Every Student Succeeds Act waits for U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature before a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building December 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. According to the White House, the new law is supposed to eliminate the ‘one-size-fits-all mandates’ of the unpopular 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In writing the Every Student Succeeds Act, Republicans and Democrats agreed: It was time to tip the scale back to states after more than a decade of expanded federal intervention under No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and NCLB waivers. States needed more freedom and flexibility to innovate; NCLB gave them ill-fitting solutions and requirements. The ESSA debate was how much to tip the scale, not whether it needed rebalancing. No one seriously asked the question of whether states were up to the task.

Now, on the brink of implementation and with ESSA’s success squarely on their backs, states’ ESSA plans are underwhelming and uneven — and progress for kids likely will be too, unless we find a way to help states up their game and take advantage of all ESSA has to offer.

I worked for the Obama administration when ESSA passed, leading the team charged with writing regulations for accountability and school improvement — the part of ESSA where its architects spent the most time arguing over federal “guardrails,” with Democrats unwilling to give states free rein entirely and Republicans pushing for more, and broader, limitations on the feds.

Yet even on accountability, states ended up with plenty of room to run. Twenty-four separate regulations were needed to cover NCLB’s school improvement provisions, like mandatory school choice and restructuring. We proposed to replace them with four — showing just how much ESSA scaled back requirements for when, and how, states intervene in low-performing schools. The Trump administration took the rollback further, rescinding those rules and adopting an even more hands-off approach.

On top of paring down requirements, ESSA offers open invitations for states and districts to innovate. A weighted student funding pilot means districts can show that they found a more equitable way to distribute state and local dollars to the neediest schools and then use that approach to distribute their federal funds as well. An innovative assessment pilot will enable states that want to develop different approaches to end-of-year testing to try out new methods in a handful of districts before scaling them statewide. States get to decide how to distribute about $1 billion for school improvement and can choose to set aside extra money to directly support students in these schools — money that could, for example, help students access advanced coursework that isn’t typically offered in their school.

What does this mean for state policymakers? If you’re a governor with a big idea for K-12 schools, odds are, little in federal law will keep you from pursuing it. And if you’re savvy, you can go further and use the looser federal framework to weave that idea throughout your state’s ESSA plan, creating momentum, tapping federal funds, and providing incentives for districts and schools to implement it. If you want to try a new approach to turn around struggling schools — transforming school governance as Massachusetts did in Lawrence or Springfield — go for it. If you want to take a big bet on improving teaching and learning by taking on curriculum and procurement, like Louisiana, ESSA won’t stop you. Maybe it’s overhauling state funding formulas or career and technical education programs, or expanding preschool or school choice. Whatever the idea, there’s probably a hook in ESSA that can be used to your advantage.

ESSA’s opportunities for state education leaders are vast, but they’re also high-stakes. Unlike NCLB, this law will be defined by states’ choices, not federal bureaucrats’, and states have embraced the shifting power dynamic; ESSA was the first piece of legislation endorsed by the National Governors Association since 1996. As a result, states will own ESSA’s potential success, just as they will own its potential failure. And the moment for state leadership will be squandered if governors and state chiefs lack the urgency, creativity, and political will to generate big ideas, enact them, and follow through over the long haul of implementation.

When it comes to creative thinking, the evidence from states so far is less than promising. Independent reviews, like the one I worked on for Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success, “found state ESSA plans to be mostly uncreative, unambitious, unclear, or unfinished.” Plans have been criticized for being short on detail, unresponsive to the needs of historically underserved students, and in violation of the law. To be sure, the plans are just one piece of evidence, and the U.S. Department of Education didn’t ask for extensive descriptions from states. What states do moving forward will be more telling than what they promised to do on paper. But the number of states taking advantage of policy levers in the law, like the ability to run competitive grants to distribute school improvement funds (rather than use a formula in which every district gets money), is disappointingly low. State leaders, it appears, often chose to leave ESSA’s opportunities on the table.

Perhaps state politics are to blame for the lack of bold ESSA plans. Shifting authority from the federal government to states doesn’t mean the messy politics of accountability disappear; they just play out on a different stage. To boot, state leaders will no longer have political cover from the feds — making political will, courage, and coalition-building important commodities. And the politics are complicated: State chiefs, governors, boards of education, and legislators all have a stake in ESSA. When they don’t share a common vision — as The New York Times recently reported — it’s little wonder a state’s plan becomes tenuous. Not to mention that even the most promising ESSA plans now can be jeopardized in the future based on electoral politics, as new governors and state chiefs take the helm.

If history — and common sense — are any indication, it’s unrealistic to think that every state will be equally successful under ESSA. The law will not “unleash a flood of innovation and student achievement” in every state, as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) predicted, just as it will not universally “[harm] our nation’s most vulnerable students,” as Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) have warned. The question now is: How can we both raise the floor, so that the laggard states hold their ground, and help more state leaders take advantage of what ESSA has to offer them?

For starters, even two years out, ESSA’s contours remain a mystery to many. States still need help identifying what’s possible and bringing the best ideas to their attention, whether through federal guidance, state support networks, think-tank white papers, academic research, or in-depth journalism. Second, we should publicly celebrate and cheer on state leaders who are taking bold actions — helping to build and maintain political support — in addition to calling out those who aren’t. And we must also make sure states have the resources, technical assistance, data, and other tools to build their capacity and make informed decisions — and improvements — as they move forward with implementation.

It’s too early to tell if ESSA will live up to its lofty name to help every student succeed. But it won’t even have a chance if we don’t find ways to help states succeed first.

Anne Hyslop is an independent education consultant and former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.

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