Feds pan CA’s ESSA plan, setting up new conflict

Feds pan CA’s ESSA plan, setting up new conflict

(Calif.) After getting a highly critical review from federal regulators of the California plan for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act, state officials promised to work cooperatively on some issues but also warned other things were non-negotiable.

“We will be working to address technical points of clarification while noting that there are areas of disagreement over the interpretation of federal statute,” said Mike Kirst, president of the state board of education, and Tom Torlakson, state schools chief, in a joint statement late last month.

It should come as no surprise that California, led by a determined governor, would be willing to take on the U.S. Department of Education over K-12 education policy.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown forced then U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan and the Obama administration to back down on threats to withhold Title I money over a testing dispute.

The pending flare up with the current Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has been telegraphed for months as Brown’s appointees on the California State Board of Education repeatedly directed staff to minimize detail in the state’s ESSA plan. The thinking was that the plan represented a contract with the federal agency and less explanation meant fewer places federal regulators could interject themselves.

But it is exactly that lack of detail that federal officials are objecting to. In a letter to Kirst and Torlakson, made public just before the Christmas holiday weekend, an aide to DeVos said that a peer review of the California plan found a number of deficiencies that the department wanted clarified.

One issue, perhaps most fundamental, is the department’s position that ESSA requires academic factors be assigned the greatest value among all indicators of student performance. That is, that test scores be more important than other measures such as attendance or discipline.

After spending almost four years constructing an accountability system that relies on multiple measures of equal weight, the Brown administration is unlikely to accept the federal interpretation of ESSA.

The federal review also raised questions about how California would identify and intervene with the state’s lowest-performing schools; the effort districts would need to take to support English learners; and how the state intends to ensure disadvantaged students have access to high-quality teachers.

Part of the problem is that the California Dashboard, the web-based system for communicating to the public school and district performance, is still a work in progress. Several performance measures do not have enough data to be useful and there are key parts of the intervention program that have yet to be adopted.

Still, central to the dispute is the general belief among state officials nationally—as well as key members of Congress—that the Education Secretary has a limited role in telling states what to do under ESSA.

The department is required to review and approve state ESSA plans, but the law is silent on what happens if the department rejects and state plan and state officials take no action.

So far, that scenario has not come into play, but several states—most prominently Rhode Island—have ignored federal requests for changes and had their plans approved anyway.

The response from Kirst and Torlakson noted that nothing will be settled easily.

“California’s ESSA plan is grounded in our state’s 2013 Local Control Funding Formula law, which emphasizes equity, public participation and continuous improvement,” they said. “Our resubmitted ESSA plan will retain those principals.”