Getting from ESSA to Equity

Last week President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, replacing No Child Left Behind as the latest version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. With any bill of this size and scope it defies easy description, and as one would expect given the political climate in Washington, DC, ESSA is a decidedly mixed law with the potential for both positive and negative effects.

Given that so much decision-making, accountability, and oversight has passed from the Federal government to the states, the ultimate success or failure of ESSA will largely be determined at the state and local level. This has important implications for education funders, organizations, and grassroots activists across the country. We should all use early 2016 to consider how ESSA impacts our strategies and tactics as we continue the fight for educational opportunity and equity for every child.

We'd like to highlight some of the analyses produced by our allies and grantees to move the conversation forward.

The Dignity in Schools Campaign warns of the dangers of reduced Federal oversight, while urging states to implement positive alternatives to traditional school discipline:

DSCNotably, the bill includes provisions of Rep. Scott’s Youth PROMISE Act, which will help schools reduce the use of exclusionary discipline that push students out of the classroom.  

We urge states, districts, and schools to implement the school climate and discipline reform provisions promoted in the law, including: 

  • The option of using school climate and safety as an indicator of school quality or student success;
  • Support for ongoing professional development training opportunities for educators on classroom management, conflict resolution and crisis management, and trauma-informed responses;
  • Detailing in state plans how states will act to address incidents of bullying and harassment and reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom or the use of counterproductive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety;
  • Ensuring that local educational agencies provide information on rates of discipline, disaggregated by student sub-groups, such as race, ethnicity, disability status, and English Learner status;
  • Programming and support to promote parent and family engagement;
  • Support for school-based mental health services; and 
  • Support for Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.  

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The Coalition for Community Schools highlights the successful inclusion of strong community school provisions in the law, which are an opening to expand the community schools movement across the country:

Coalition for Community SchoolsThe bill, which replaces No Child Left Behind and will go into effect the 2017-2018 school year, includes Full Service Community Schools in Title IV under a program titled "Community Support for School Success." Funding for Full Service would add to the momentum of the 150 places utilizing the community schools strategy across the country. It would encourage more Mayors like Bill De Blasio in New York City, Ras Baraka in Newark and Jim Kenney in Philadelphia who are embracing community schools as a solution to their city’s vexing education challenges, and inspire more Superintendents to join colleagues Teresa Neal in Grand Rapids and Steve Webb in Vancouver, Washington who are already growing community schools.

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The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) has already put together a list of possible goals for state and local organizers who are fighting against over-testing. ESSA provides an opening for legislatures to pare back the number and scope of high-stakes tests, pass opt-out laws, and provide transparency around the current testing regime (e.g. how much instruction time is taken up with test prep):

FairTestHow can the movement use the opportunities, counter the risks, and win greater assessment reform victories? The first task is to continue to build resistance to high-stakes standardized exams in every state in the nation, especially by expanding the already large numbers of test refusals. Next is to transform this movement strength into concrete victories by winning state legislation and local regulations to cut back testing, end high stakes, and implement high-quality assessments.

ESSA pushes decision-making power about most aspects of accountability from federal education officials to the states and localities. It will take strong and savvy organizing to win needed changes.

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The Nellie Mae Foundation emphasizes the new openings provided to local schools and communities to innovate and try new strategies:

Nellie Mae FoundationESSA mandates a big shift toward balancing shared responsibility, as the law moves significant decision-making about responses to low performance to the district level guided by state authority. However, the distribution of authority to the local level will demand capacity-building so that local communities can meet those responsibilities. Today most districts do not have the capacity to do so, as so much energy has been directed to a compliance-based framework. This is an issue any advocates of dramatic, equitable change and improvement will care about. It is one thing to open up opportunity. It is another to be able to fully, expertly and responsibly take advantage of the opportunity. Wealthy districts may be able to meet the challenge even if they do not need to, while those who must cannot without support.

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The Education Law Center reminds us that once again, Congress failed to ensure that the states deliver on equity in funding and resources for those who are most underserved:

ELCMost states are shortchanging schools the funding and programs needed to give all children the chance to succeed, especially the growing numbers of children in poverty in districts and states across the country. Millions of children in our state systems attend schools deprived of the teachers, support staff and other resources essential to learning. Only a handful of states have made the effort to overhaul their finance systems to deliver those resources to schools and students most in need.

Congress could have required the states move away from funding schools based on dollars and politics to providing students and schools the resources necessary to achieve academically. Congress could have required states to build capacity to deliver high quality supports to help high risk schools and districts to improve. And Congress could have taken bold action to press states to dramatically expand access to high quality early education to give at-risk youngsters the opportunity for school readiness. Congress received these recommendations from the federal Equity Commission in 2013 but chose to ignore them.

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The Alliance for Excellent Education emphasizes the need to keep the focus on graduation rates:

Alliance for Excellent EducationESSA maintains requirements around high school graduation rates that have helped the nation’s graduation rate reach an all-time high while reducing the number of dropouts by nearly 30 percent. To build on this progress, ESSA provides accountability and support to high schools that do not graduate one-third or more of their students. In addition, the legislation requires school districts to provide support to traditionally underserved students who consistently demonstrate low performance. Finally, funds are set aside for schools and districts to implement evidence-based interventions.

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For all the potential ESSA holds, it is up to all of us to make sure that its passage is one more step toward equity, fairness, and opportunity for our nation's public school students and the communities in which they live. We must ensure that that those who are most impacted by these changes — students, parents, teachers — are central to the process. If we are able to do this, we can create the type of healthy living and learning communities where all students will have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn.

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