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How Much ESSA Work Gets Done Under Obama vs. the Next President?

The Every Student Succeeds Act may be the law of the land, but it won't be fully in place until the 2017-18 school year. By then, of course, acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. and company will likely have moved on, and a new team—led by a President-and-Secretary-to-be-Named Later—will have taken their place.

So how much of the early implementation (writing regulations, appointing peer reviewers, and approving ESSA plans) will be done by the Obama folks, and how much will be up to the incoming team?

Right now, it's anyone guess. The Education Department has taken some preliminary steps toward regulation, but hasn't yet specified a timeline for completing its work. (ESSA is still a new law, and those things take time to work out.) 

What seems likely? We polled federal K-12 policy experts who have a good understanding of the regulatory process for some smart speculation. And they all note that the time frame is pretty tight. 

Most expect the Obama administration will push to get as much accomplished as it can before heading out the door. It doesn't seem likely, though, that King and company will end up being the folks who write all the regulations for the new law, appoint the peer reviewers for state's ESSA plans, and approve those plans. They will be able to get to some of those tasks, but not all of them, given the ticking clock, and some built-in pauses, like time for the field to comment on proposed regulations.

In particular, it's likely that the next administration could end up giving the final seal of approval to state plans, even as the new secretary and his or her team are setting up shop. 

"Given the amount of time it will take to lay the foundation for the planning process, including approving regulations, it is difficult to see how [plan approval] can be done between now and January," said Reg Leichty, the founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy. "The states will need some time to digest what implementation steps have happened at the federal level in order to write really high-quality plans," he said. "Eleven months is short window."
That doesn't mean the Obama administration's regulatory process will not be important, Leichty said. "The work completed this year—whatever regulations and guidance are finalized—will influence state plans even if this administration ultimately doesn't approve them," he explained.
So when could ESSA plans be due? Melissa Junge, an attorney at the Federal Education Group, says her best guess, based on past practice, is that ESSA plans will likely be due sometime in the spring of 2017, after a new administration has taken over. On another issue, while it is not entirely clear, she thinks states will not have to file a plan for using their Title I and other federal funds during this transition time, the 2016-17 school year.

And Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, who worked for Democrats on the House education committee, noted the timeline in the law seems to intentionally allow for some input from the next administration.

"I am sure that ED is moving ahead as quickly as they can because states need guidance on how to develop their plans. ... ESSA is interesting, though, because most of the Title I provisions don't take effect until school year 2017-18," she wrote in an email. "That says to me that the Congressional intent was to have the new President have some impact on ESSA.  This, of course, could mean policy reversals from one administration to the next, but I think ESSA is pretty clear about how far they want any Secretary of Education to go beyond the statute (not far)."  

And she said that Congress will clearly keep an eye on implementation—there are at least two ESSA oversight hearings in the works next week.  

Of course, the picture could become even more complicated if the Obama team writes many of the regulations for ESSA, but the next president wants to head in a very different direction on K-12. (By say, getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education altogether.)

But, it is hard to imagine a new administration throwing everything out and starting from scratch, Leichty said, particularly given the progress states will make independent of what the feds do this year. Instead, a new administration could initially make selective changes and work toward more significant policy shifts over time, he said.

Smart states, though, which have a clear vision of what they want their accountability systems to look like under ESSA, may already be moving forward on thinking through their plans, even before the regulatory process is complete. (A good place for them to start looking for potential models: the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's ESSA design competition, which you can check out here.)

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