Every Student Succeeds Act: Reversal of Bush-Era Education Law Restores Local Control

On Tuesday December 8, 2015, Karen Nussle, Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success issued the following statement on the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA):

Earlier today, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly and in bipartisan fashion to approve the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bill that represents a significant shift of power from the federal government back to the states. ESSA was designed as part of a larger repeal-and-replace effort directed at No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the outdated 2001 law from which 43 states and the District of Columbia have been granted exemptions through federal waivers.

It’s unusual in this era of polarized politics and congressional intransigence to see Republican and Democratic cooperation on a major public policy initiative. It’s even more remarkable for that collaboration to result in sweeping legislation with broad support across the political spectrum. ESSA dramatically re-envisions national education law and won the support of conservative House Republicans, teachers unions, education reformers and civil rights organizations; and is now certain to be signed into law by the President.

The new legislation substantially reduces federal control over K-12 education for the first time in three decades, instead handing back decision-making power to states and school districts. That change, coupled with specific provisions designed to help underserved communities, generated strong support for the bill that ultimately helped it achieve passage by wide bicameral margins. And it’s particularly encouraging to supporters of the Common Core State Standards because it forever ends what has long been an Achilles’ Heel of Common Core: federal entanglement through Race to the Top and secretarial waivers in state decisions surrounding the adoption of standards and the selection of aligned assessments. Here’s what three key constituencies like about the ESSA:

What Conservatives Like About ESSA. While conservatives have long been divided on the Common Core State Standards, there is near-universal agreement on the right that the federal government overstepped its role in incentivizing states to adopt Common Core and Common Core-aligned assessments. “My experience traveling to red states to testify on the Common Core has shown me that about 98 percent of this debate – on the right, at least – is about federal overreach,” says Michael J. Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The ESSA permanently ends Washington interference with Common Core, thus restoring Common Core to its original intent – a state-initiated, state-led effort to raise student achievement through voluntary K-12 standards in math and English that are comparable across state lines. It does so in the following ways:

  • Expressly prohibits the Secretary of Education, or any other federal government agent, from coercing or incentivizing states into adopting standards such as Common Core or assessments;
  • Ends the Secretary of Education’s ability to influence state education policies through executive fiat and conditional waivers;
  • Prohibits the Department of Education from imposing any additional mandates on states and school districts in the areas of standards, assessments and state accountability plans, beyond what is specified in the legislation; and
  • Formally codifies that adoption of standards and assessments are solely the prerogative and responsibility of the states and not the federal government.

What Teachers Unions Like About ESSA. Teachers unions have long complained that one of the unintended consequences of NCLB was to create a punitive test-based environment in which some teachers felt forced to spend as much as a third of their time preparing for tests. ESSA puts states, rather than the federal government, in charge of developing accountability systems, and it gives states more flexibility into how to manage low-performing schools. Teachers praised ESSA for the following reforms:

  • Empowers educators as trusted professionals to make school and classroom decisions:
  • Reduces reliance on high-stakes testing by de-coupling high-stakes decision-making from statewide standardized tests;
  • Allows states and school districts to formulate more comprehensive approaches to measuring progress (e.g. end-of-course testing, formative assessments, practitioner-designed assessments, performance-based assessment tasks (PBATs), observations, student work samples, etc.);
  • Makes strong investments to improve and expand access to preschool; and
  • Provides funding so that school districts can conduct audits designed to identify testing redundancies.

What Civil Rights Groups Like About ESSA. ESSA gained tepid support from a nearly 40-member coalition of civil rights groups that includes the Education Trust, National Council of La Raza, National Urban League, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, among many others. While civil rights groups stated the ESSA is “not the bill we would have written,” it made clear that “there are provisions in the [bill] that we believe will help remedy deep-seated disparities in our nation’s schools.” Civil rights groups were particularly encouraged by the following provisions:

  • Protects students with special needs by putting a 1 percent cap on the use of alternative assessments on alternative achievement standards, limiting their use to only students with the most significant cognitive disabilities;
  • Continues to provides for transparent, accessible reporting of data – disaggregated by race, income, disability status, and English proficiency – at state, district and individual school levels
  • Initiates accountability systems that include achievement and graduation rate goals for all groups of students, rates schools in large part on their academic performance of all groups of students, and requires action when any group of students consistently underperforms;
  • Approves an additional $250 million for early childhood education;
  • Introduces a pilot program for weighted student funding to help districts better direct resources to students most in need of assistance; and
  • Rejects Title I portability, which would have ultimately taken money from poorer districts and given it to wealthier districts.