By MARIA FERGUSON
In and around Washington, there has been a near constant flow of chatter and analysis about the pending Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Since the conference report dropped on Monday, policy types have been digging into the 1,000+-page document to determine what it means for the different constituencies.
Looking broadly however, one thing about ESSA is very clear: State and local leaders will have more power and control over certain aspects of education, most notably accountability and improvement efforts for low-performing schools. It may be too early to predict how these leaders will use their newfound power, but I suspect their actions will fall into three predictable categories: those who lead, those who follow, and those who lurch and wobble.
When first presented with an opportunity to take control or seize the moment, most of us have at least a moment of fear and apprehension. If you’re a runner, that feeling comes when you slowly gain speed over those around you and look ahead to see a clear and open path to the finish line. You have a moment, and (hopefully) you take it and run like the wind toward your goal, the finish line.
I suspect state leaders will feel the same way when handed the reigns on school improvement and accountability. The “federal overreach,” so often cited during the Duncan tenure, has been significantly chipped away with ESSA, giving state leaders a liberal amount of autonomy and flexibility. The tide has indeed turned, and states will have the chance to seize their moment.
But the story of state leadership around education is at best a mixed bag. Do we really have reason to hope that ESSA will usher in a new era of school improvement? Like most questions about education, there are no easy answers. But if there were an Education Walk of Fame, the stars would likely include Massachusetts (America’s own Finland) for its well-regarded efforts to improve teaching and learning for all students. Kentucky, with its unique state level partnership between K-12 education, postsecondary education, and business and industry, is also a leader. And California, tackling the Holy Grail of education reform by rethinking both local funding formulas and state accountability measures.
These are just a few examples of state leadership that is out in front, operating on all cylinders and putting students at the center of their goals and actions. I’d bet these states (and several others) embrace the power and autonomy that comes with ESSA and continue to lead the way, pushing onward despite the challenges facing them.
But what about those other states, the ones that continue to struggle with the challenges of school improvement? What will become of them now that the accountability arm of the federal government has been unceremoniously placed back in a pocket? With more freedom to make choices that reflect the needs of their own student population will they make more progress? Unfortunately, autonomy alone won’t be enough. Many states lack the capacity and support needed to truly seize a moment. Take Alabama, for instance. Just this fall, Republicans in the state senate voted to transfer $100 million from the state education budget into the general fund to cover a deficit. It is hard to be bold when you’re short of staff, lacking in much-needed skills and expertise, and trying to balance an ever-tightening budget. Those challenges, coupled with a compliance mentality that has taken hold in so many states and districts, will no doubt leave some state leaders searching for direction, inspiration, and support, none of which is included in ESSA.
So while the growing support for ESSA in Washington seems to indicate that Congress did indeed pull off a Christmas miracle, the New Year will likely bring state and local leaders both new opportunities and new challenges. My Christmas wish is that along with their newfound autonomy, state and local leaders also get the help and support they need.
MARIA FERGUSON is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and the Washington View columnist for Kappan magazine.