August 16, 2016

ESSA Didn’t Settle Federal Education Policy. Far From It.

By Bellwether

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Image via Arizona Governor’s Office of Education

Why aren’t politicians talking about education this year? One justification I’ve heard is that last December’s passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) took education off the table.
This is wrong, or at least incomplete. It’s true that federal K-12 education policy is settled at the moment from a congressional standpoint, but it’s far from settled at the presidential level. In fact, our next President will be forced to make a number of important education policy decisions almost immediately upon taking office.
This situation is rare across all domestic policy issues (foreign policy is different and more susceptible to external events). Most presidents sign major legislative accomplishments early in their first terms, and they spend the rest of their time in office implementing those things. This pattern has held true for Presidents Clinton (NAFTA, welfare reform, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the 1994 ESEA reauthorization), Bush (tax cuts, Medicare expansion, the Patriot Act, Sarbanes-Oxley, No Child Left Behind), and Obama (the stimulus act, health care reform, and Dodd-Frank financial reform).
I can think of two notable exceptions to this rule. One was TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, that bailed out the banks in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown. It passed at the end of Bush’s administration but is often credited to Obama. And now there’s ESSA, which Obama signed last December even though he won’t be around to implement it. By signing this significant piece of legislation so late into his second term, Obama effectively left most of the actual implementation work to his successor.
To get a sense of why this matters, it’s important to consider the timeline ESSA laid out. As of August 1 this year, NCLB is dead, and, so are any waivers issued under NCLB. States are busy preparing their new accountability systems, which must be in place beginning with the 2017-18 school year, and states will be submitting their plans in the spring and summer of 2017.
In order to get all this done, here’s what needs the next administration will need to accomplish within their first 6-8 months:

  • Decide what they want to do with Obama’s draft regulations on testing, accountability, and finances;
  • Communicate to the field any changes from Obama-era policy with enough time to respond (particularly if the changes require state legislation!);
  • Create a peer review process sturdy enough to review 51 state plans;
  • Somehow approve each of the 51 state plans in a consistent, fair, and transparent way; and
  • Do all this while maintaining a high bar and ensuring states are taking steps to improve outcomes for kids.

As someone who went through a similar process during the first rounds of NCLB waivers, I can tell you this is a lot of work. The dedicated career staff at the U.S. Department of Education will be a big asset here, but it will be a tremendous undertaking with a number of moving pieces.
But wait, there’s more. This would be a challenge in any circumstance, but ESSA is far from a simple, clear law. Congress was able to reach broad bipartisan agreement on ESSA mainly because it punted on a number of of key policy questions. Any reading of ESSA leaves one wondering what exactly Congress meant when it asked states to “meaningfully differentiate” among schools, when it required that states give “substantial weight” to each indicator, or when it stipulated that academic indicators count for “much greater weight” than non-academic ones.
These examples are barely scraping the barrel of vague phrases littered throughout ESSA, and they don’t even capture all the current debates about what ESSA actually meant. Does the law require states to issue “summative ratings” of schools? And how should districts ensure they are truly using federal dollars to “supplement not supplant” state and local funds?
The Obama team has already offered its own answers to these questions, but ESSA’s timeline will force the next president to make his or her own decisions quickly. As of now, state plans are scheduled to be due in March or July of 2017 in order to be approved by the start of the 2017-18 school year. For most administrations, their first few months are a time to hire staff and begin to think about policy directions; ESSA will force them to move much faster.
All of this makes the current lack of education content even more concerning. Not only will the next President be forced into answering important education policy questions early in their tenure, we don’t really know yet how they’d answer them.

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