SEAs Shift from Implementers to Designers under ESSA
New roles beg new questions
By Dr. Paula Love
I fondly remember the day I received my first driver’s license—and the newly found sense of independence it offered. But I also recall the realization that my freedom came with a trade-off: the huge liability of operating a vehicle. The weight of that responsibility was felt as I paid my insurance premiums, navigated a near-miss with another car in a parking lot, and of course, minded the speed limit.
In a similar way, State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) have been given a new license of freedom under the education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However, that freedom comes bound with greater fiscal and programmatic responsibilities. In many regards, SEAs and LEAs will move from implementers to designers under the new education law. The success of this shift will be determined by the state and local agencies’ ability to meet the expanded expectations of their role under ESSA.
Freedom from mandates, but increased responsibility for SEAs
Though education in the United States has always been primarily the responsibility of state and local agencies, the federal government has had varying degrees of authority. Under the previous education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), federal mandates significantly increased. Strict requirements included meeting adequate progress, or being forced to implement prescribed interventions.
ESSA reverses this trend, handing much of the responsibility back to states. From accountability requirements to the funding of key programs, many decisions previously dictated by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) will now lie with state or local agencies. For the first time in several decades, SEAs and LEAs have an opportunity to set new priorities and enact meaningful reforms and programs.
More local and state control over accountability & standards
Though the federal government still dictates testing for specific grades under ESSA, states now can decide which tests are used, so long as they are high-quality. The federal parameters for testing have been simplified to move away from the “high-stakes” nature of previous assessments, but accordingly, ESSA requires more indicators. States must include five indicators: student proficiency on tests, another measure of academic achievement such as student growth, high school graduation rates, progress toward proficiency for English Language Learners, and another measure of school quality (e.g. school climate) that can be tracked for subgroups.
However, because these indicators can—and will—vary widely among states, designing assessments that align to those indicators may be a challenge. States also must be prepared to address a new requirement of ESSA: assessing higher-order thinking skills.
Similarly, ESSA offers states the flexibility to adopt their own challenging academic standards—a welcome move for some states previously wedded to the Common Core State Standards. However, this freedom means that state-specific standards must be implemented in ways that are reflected in accountability measures and align with state higher education entrance requirements and career/technical education standards. Again, these requirements may prove to be a challenge for SEAs.
More funding flexibility with block grants, Title 1 funds
One of the biggest ways that ESSA offers state and local flexibility is through funding. A new $1.6 billion block grant, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant, will be given to states to pass along to districts within a very flexible framework of guidelines. For districts with allocations of $30,000 or more, at least 20 percent of funding must be spent on activities to help students become well-rounded, and another 20 percent must be spent on an activity that helps students be safe and healthy. The remaining 60 percent may be used for the effective use of technology in the classroom, with no more than 15 percent used for infrastructure.
It is fair to assume that this funding will open the door for more local choice at the LEA—and perhaps even school—level. This funding can be used to support district or school programs to expand arts education, career, and technical education (CTE), and a wide variety of other options.
Title 1 funds are also poised to offer more flexibility to LEAs. Under NCLB, Title 1 funds could only be used for “schoolwide programs” in schools in which more than 40 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds. Under ESSA, a state may grant a school a waiver from that 40 percent threshold after considering the impact of those funds on student achievement. As a result, more Title 1 funds could be spent on schoolwide expenditures in states that are willing to grant the new waiver.
States, districts determine improvement efforts
Prior to ESSA, federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) required the implementation of one of a handful of federally-prescribed intervention models. Now, state and local education agencies can work together to create intervention plans that meet localized needs. Each state gets to decide whether to make improvement funds available using formula or competitive grants.
SEAs also have the flexibility to determine how they will identify schools in need of improvement interventions. These tasks have proven to be time-intensive for states, leading the USED to extend the states’ deadline for comprehensive plans until the 2018-19 school year, and for identifying schools until the 2019-20 school year.
How much involvement LEAs have in the process of creating those plans and developing turnaround models will vary widely by state.
All states have provided stakeholders—both within the school system and the general public—an opportunity to weigh in, but it is unclear how much of that feedback will be reflected in state plans.
Amidst new program management, concerns arise over SEA capacity
Under ESSA, SEAs will take on additional responsibilities, including designing rigorous standards, creating high-quality assessments that are aligned to those standards, and developing evidence-based turn-around models. In some cases, SEAs also must create and fund new positions. For example, the new law requires that SEAs establish set-aside funds to provide equitable services to eligible children enrolled in private schools, and to create an ombudsman position to ensure equity for those students.
However, these new responsibilities bring concerns of expertise and capacity. Consider the various states’ size disparities in terms of ability and resources – from both perspectives. Los Angeles Unified School District alone has three times more students than the combined total of every district in the state of Maine. This variance brings challenges and opportunities alike to SEAs and LEAs as they decide how they will design programs under ESSA. Larger states may have more expertise, funding, and staffing to develop new programs, but they also tend to deal with larger populations of struggling students. Smaller states might have the ability to directly meet the local needs of their schools but might struggle to find local expertise. In both situations, third-party vendors might be called upon to help.
Who ultimately holds a state’s decision-making power?
Many stakeholders are asking who will make the final decisions around ESSA plans: a state board of education, legislators, or the SEA? The answer varies widely from state to state and is not always clear. In some states, such as Colorado, control over decisions is being contested between legislators and the state board of education. In Louisiana, educators felt that the state board of education was not listening to their input during ESSA engagement meetings. As a result, the governor formed a separate ESSA advisory board. How the two groups will marry the collective input is unclear.
It’s worth noting that the current federal administration echoes ESSA’s goal to empower state and local decision-makers. During his campaign, President-Elect Trump suggested that he might eliminate the USED altogether. His pick for U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has been a vocal proponent of school choice, localized education, and dismantling the Common Core State Standards. The tone of the administration leans heavily toward more state and local control, fueling stronger authority for SEAs and LEAs.
New law brings new opportunities for success and failure alike
As ESSA begins its official roll-out, there are many uncertainties. Will this shift to state and local decision-making have the intended impact of increasing student proficiency and outcomes? Who will ultimately decide how to prioritize funding and programs? How much say will LEAs have in determining their own priorities? In most states, it is too early to say.
But one thing is clear: states and districts are no longer merely implementers—they are also serving as creators and designers. Whether they are up to the task remains to be seen.