When federal policymakers passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) two years ago, they hoped that states would be innovative in solving local needs and producing better student outcomes when unencumbered by federal oversight. Since then, every state and the District of Columbia has submitted to the U.S. Department of Education their proposals on just how they will maximize their newfound flexibility.
We read and evaluated the quality of all 51 submitted plans. To put it generously, states did not use ESSA’s flexibility in ways federal lawmakers thought they would. With few exceptions, state plans are unambitious and incomplete. In many, the performance of historically underserved students is overlooked and unaddressed.
State systems only identify schools with the lowest-of-the-low performers, which will likely leave many schools in need of help unidentified and unsupported. And even when schools are identified, states do not plan to provide robust support to help them improve.
Considering states’ shaky track records on civil rights, it is difficult to imagine that these plans will advance educational equity.
So, What’s Next?
But because ESSA cannot be relitigated today, it is more productive to look ahead to what can be done to improve education and increase equity. Below are a few ideas for the national education community to consider to support local actors in pushing states to become more equitable:
Hold states’ feet to the fire
For national organizations, this will be far more difficult than it was under No Child Left Behind, and harder even than it was with the ESEA flexibility waivers. Direct lobbying and advocacy with this Department of Education, while important, may not be all that productive since Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos does not appear committed to strong federal oversight.
As such, national researchers may want to focus their efforts on analyzing the success of implementation. They can check to see how faithfully states execute their plans. And finally, as the data permits, they can evaluate if states are raising achievement and increasing equity. Altogether, these efforts may not force states to do better, but they nevertheless can help to highlight successes and failures.
Support and fund local advocacy
Because ESSA severely restricts the federal role in education, change needs to come from the ground up. The good news is that there is a tremendous amount of local organizing and advocacy around education and equity in states and localities all across the country.
This is where philanthropy comes in. Funders should shift some of their focus to local investments to build capacity, provide resources and support communications. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent strategy shift to fund local networks of public schools and entice them to share best practices is a step in the right direction in this new education era.
In short, national and philanthropic organizations can play an important role amplifying and supporting local advocacy and action around improving education for all students, and particularly for historically marginalized populations.
Plan for the future
ESSA’s authorization period is short—Congress is set to reauthorize the law in 2021. That means, in just three years there will be an opportunity to reinstate a strong federal role to right the wrongs of ESSA and require states to build systems focused on providing high-quality education, particularly to underserved students.
To be prepared for reauthorization, based on lessons learned from the ESSA era, advocates and policymakers must develop a plan for what a strong federal accountability framework centered on advancing equity should look like.
After reading thousands of pages of state ESSA plans, it was easy to become discouraged. For the most part, states did not take seriously their opportunity to innovate or their obligation to better serve historically marginalized populations.
But while the next few years will be difficult, they too are an opportunity. They provide the chance to focus on supporting local advocates, to develop capacity and to build new, broader coalitions.
Hopefully, by the time ESSA is reauthorized, there will be an even stronger education ecosystem geared toward equity.