Feds remain mostly mum about transition to ESSA

Feds remain mostly mum about transition to ESSA

(District of Columbia) Facing an abrupt turn in regulation of the nation’s public schools, officials at the U.S. Department of Education conceded Tuesday it might be some time before details about transitioning to the Every Student Succeeds Act can be developed.

ESSA, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, largely removed the federal government as arbiter of school performance and returned much of that authority to the states – including responsibility for deciding how to hold schools accountable.

The new flexibility represents a sea change from the No Child Left Behind Act but Congress didn’t include a lot of direction to explain how and when states and school districts can take full possession.

“We will continue to work with states to transition to the new law with minimal disruption – that said, it’s too early to go into specific details at this point,” said Dorie Turner Nolt, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

“We have the ability and responsibility to regulate, and it is likely that there will be places where additional clarity is necessary to provide guidance to states and districts and protect educational opportunity for all children,” she said in a statement to Cabinet Report.

The sharp policy maneuver called for by ESSA would be complex and challenging under normal circumstances, but the fact that it comes as Obama begins his last year in office and after his long-serving education advisor Arne Duncan has retired as education secretary makes the transition all the more problematic.

Congressional leaders as well as state and local officials are watching the department carefully as the process gets underway. There are concerns first over what remnants of NCLB the department will ask states to continue to carry on with temporarily. Second, and perhaps of greatest importance, is how the department will craft the regulations needed to put the new law into operation.

Conflict over where to draw those lines is already taking shape.

John King, the acting U.S. Secretary of Education, said in a speech this week that the new law “preserves the federal levers to withhold funds from states or put them on high-risk.” He also noted that the U.S. Justice Department will be “leaning in” to insure states fulfill their “obligation to promote equity.”

Perhaps in response, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown is expected today to be among the first to weigh in by issuing a public plea for federal education officials to honor the basic tenant of ESSA – which is to give flexibility to the states on school performance and accountability.

As part of an effort to get stakeholder input as the transition plan takes shape, the federal education officials held the first of two public hearings earlier this week. The second will take place next week in Los Angeles and the department is also accepting written comments through Jan. 21.

If most of the details for transition are still unknown, there are a few sign posts that Congress included in the legislation.

One is the Aug. 1, 2016, date that Congress identified as sunset for the NCLB flexibility waivers issued by the Education Department. Until then, those granted waivers – 42 states  and the District of Columbia – are expected to continue all programs in support of the waiver conditions.

It is unclear if states without an NCLB waiver must continue the law’s now outdated activities, such as corrective actions under Program Improvement.

There is also some uncertainty about what waiver states will need to do to accommodate federal requirements around teacher evaluations, either in the short or long term. ESSA does not include the requirement that evaluations must be linked to student test scores and already some states – reportedly New York, Oklahoma and South Carolina – are reconsidering continuation of the practice.

The new law does mandate that states establish “long-term goals” for all students and separately for individual subgroups.

In a December letter to the field, federal regulators said they will not require states to submit annual measurable achievement objectives for the school years of 2014–15 or 2015–16. They also said states will not have their performance measured against AMOs for the 2014–15 or 2015–16 school years.

The department also noted in the same letter that states and districts must continue to publish report cards, including for the 2014–15 school year. Report cards must continue to include information that shows the performance of students on state assessments compared to students and subgroups of students in the state as a whole.

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