Analysis: Dustup over CA’s ESSA plan might be semantics

Analysis: Dustup over CA’s ESSA plan might be semantics

(Calif.) Next week, the California State Board of Education is scheduled to give its final blessing to its controversial plan for meeting new federal education requirements.

And those hoping the board’s staff has been busy rewriting the document are likely to be disappointed.

The plan for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act has been in the works for more than a year, but just in the last two weeks, the proposal came under attack from a respected East Coast think tank as well as one of California’s leading child advocacy organizations.

The import of the reviews from both Bellwether Education Partners, based in D.C., and Children Now of Oakland, is that the California plan is so flawed it might be rejected by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Assuming that’s the outcome, the question facing the state board next week is whether anyone in California will care.

A majority of voters in the Golden State are already at odds with the White House on practically everything–from climate change and immigration, to health care reform and recreational marijuana. Representing their constituency, Gov. Jerry Brown along with the Democratic leadership of the Legislature, have consistently confronted the president or his policies, spoiling for a fight.

The state board is similarly positioned, well aware that one of the primary goals of Congress in drafting ESSA was to reduce the role the federal government has played in education policy.

Moreover, the members of the SBE have said repeatedly that the newly-installed Local Control Funding Formula and its companion, the Local Control Accountability Plan—are driving education policy in California, not ESSA.

And key members of the board are already on record if it comes to a showdown and Trump threatens to withhold federal funds.

“It’s a pittance,” said member Sue Burr of the federal contribution to school funding at a hearing in May on the ESSA plan. “They should not be telling us what to be doing based on their investment in our schools.”

It is also important to recall that Brown went to the mat with the Obama administration in 2013 over a dispute over testing, and it was then-Secretary Arne Duncan who backed down after threatening to suspend some Title I money to the state.

For context, the state will spend about $75 billion on K-12 services this year while the federal government will add close to $8 billion.

No doubt, cooler heads will prevail before schools in California lose $8 billion—but the point is that Brown clearly feels strongly about keeping control over education policy in state.

A close look at what is in dispute suggests the issues might be more cosmetic than foundational anyway.

Bellwether, in partnership with the Collaborative for Student Success, convened a group of 30 education experts to review the state ESSA plans as each became ready for submission to federal officials.

The group downgraded the California plan largely because it failed to provide details about the state accountability system.

Since releasing its review, Bellwether has made some corrections on a handful of technical points—but their main theme of criticism did not change.

“The state’s plan would be greatly improved by including more details about its system of supports and interventions, including the timing of any interventions, the funding allocated to low-performing schools, and any actions the state takes if district level improvement efforts prove ineffective,” the Bellwether team said.

Officials at Children Now picked up on the criticism, noting they had been making the same point for months.

“Our broad take is that inherently this plan does not focus on providing assurances for at-risk populations and doesn’t focus on close measuring, reporting on, or monitoring whether there’s closures in achievement gaps,” Robert Manwaring, a policy and fiscal adviser at Children Now told the LA School Report, last week. “We think that’s really problematic.”

Not so, say the Brown administration and Mike Kirst, president of the state board of education. Kirst has been saying for months that the ESSA plan shouldn’t contain detailed explanation of how the state will carry out its oversight duties. He and the rest of the board generally regard the ESSA plan as “an application for federal funding” and nothing more.

The thinking here is that the fewer details shared with federal regulation, the more flexibility the state and schools in California will have to carry out their mission.

That said, there’s still a major question that Bellwether and Children Now are raising: has the state board put in place the systems and policies needed to improve education in California if the details of those systems and policies are not disclosed in the ESSA plan?

To answer that, the Brown administration got help late last week from another well-known and respected education body—the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“California's ESSA plan is just the beginning of a process it has already begun to improve education for all kids,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of CCSSO in a well-timed statement. “At the end of the day, it is clear California values equity and the feedback they received from the educators, parents, students and advocates in their state.”

He highlighted California’s use of multiple measures of school and student performance; the new funding formula that targets at-risk students; and the state’s target approach to school intervention.

That said, DeVos and the Trump White House may indeed find fault with the California plan and may come to a showdown with Brown over revisions. But consistent with the president and much of his staff, DeVos has not shown a particularly steady administrative hand—having first rejected and then back peddled on an ESSA plan submitted by Delaware, for example.

Thus, it is unclear how DeVos will react if pressed.

Delaware did make some changes to their plan but ignored others raised by the federal review team and still won approval.

Nevada won DeVos’ OK after making some changes. New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, New Mexico and the District of Columbia all got the greenlight with little drama.

On Friday, the secretary announced approval of North Dakota’s plan—where she seemed to align herself with the Congressional Republicans that wrote ESSA and perhaps shed some light on the way a dispute with California will be decided:

 “Allowing states more flexibility in how they deliver education to students is at the core of ESSA,” the Sept. 1 press release said. “Each state crafted a plan that it feels will best offer educational opportunities to meet the needs of the state and its students.”