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Midterms Could Mean Big Changes for State ESSA Plans: Which Races to Watch

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may have approved every state's vision for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act—but that doesn't mean the plans are all done and dusted.

States can still make changes to their plans. And after the midterm elections in November, many of them may want to. (To be sure, DeVos and company will have to approve major revisions. The U.S. Department of Education is expected to say more about what that process will look in coming weeks and months.)

Thirty-six states are holding elections for governor, and at least eight of them appoint their state education chief, who ultimately must sign off the ESSA plan. (If the new governor doesn't like the plan, there's a good chance his or her hand-picked chief won't either.) In other states with tight races, like Florida, the governor appoints at least some of the members of the state board, who then get to pick the chief. 

And another seven states are holding elections for chief. (To be sure, some of those races aren't particularly competitive. For instance, Jillian Ballow, a Republican and the state chief in Wyoming, is running unopposed.)

But others could have dramatic consequences for ESSA plans, even if the candidates themselves aren't talking about wonky things like school ratings systems, turnaround plans, and teacher evaluation systems.

So which are the elections to watch? Here's a quick run-down:

New Mexico

Background: The Land of Enchantment is pretty much the poster child here. The state's ESSA plan, which has won national plaudits, is almost certain to change after the state elects a new governor this fall. It's just a question of which direction that change will go in.

The state's secretary of education, Christopher Ruszkowski, was appointed by the term-limited Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican. Ruszkowski has endorsed the state's A-through-F grading system and the most rigorous teacher evaluation program in the country. He's also championed a major role for the state in overseeing districts' plans for turning around their lowest-performing schools. In fact, he initially rejected four districts' improvement plans. And he's made sure the state stuck by the PARCC tests, even as states around the country ditched them.

But all of that could go out the window after a new governor is elected. That person will appoint a new chief, who can start from scratch on the state's ESSA plan. The race is close, but it looks like there would be a lot of change under either candidate. 

Candidates: Rep. Michelle Lujan, the Democratic nominee for governor, has a 21-page plan for improving New Mexico's schools. It calls for ditching the state's A-through-F grading system and getting rid of the PARCC test. She also wants to support American Indian tribes that are interested in developing and piloting Indigenous Language assessments.

And importantly, she'd like to move away from the state's educator-evaluation system, which gauges teachers' performance in part in how well their students do on standardized tests.

"New Mexico's current system, which uses value-added modeling (VAM) to determine a teacher's impact by using statistical models to predict what a student's scores should be based on their previous test scores, isn't working," Lujan's plan says. "States across the country are moving away from such methods because of the proven limitations in trying to predict a student's performance based on any unique variable."

The Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, is actually on the same page when it comes to the teacher performance reviews.

"We will immediately suspend the current Teacher Evaluation System," he wrote on his campaign website. "We will seek input from New Mexico educators to create a system that is fair and meaningful. The revamped evaluation system should be simple and easy to understand."

Pearce is also calling for more local control of schools. (So, reading between the lines, maybe no more nixing district turnaround plans.) And he wants to significantly expand school choice, including charters, magnet schools, e-learning, and home schooling.

California

Background: Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, isn't on the ballot. And neither is state schools chief Tom Torlakson, also a Democrat. Both the state chief election and the governor's race could have consequences for the state's ESSA plan, which uses a dashboard to gauge school performance, instead of giving schools an overall score. Some—including DeVos—say the dashboard is confusing. The state also has a locally-driven school improvement system, a compliment to its new local funding formula.

Candidates: In the campaign for state schools chief, Marshall Tuck, the former president of the charter network Green Dot Public Schools and one of two nonpartisan candidates for the post, thinks parents and educators need clearer information about their schools than the dashboard provides.

"The move to multiple-measures in our state accountability systems is a positive step, but the tool should be more user-friendly for both parents and educators, transparently disaggregate data for subgroups, and allow for the clear identification of underperforming schools," he wrote.

And he seems interested in moving away from a locally-driven system of school improvement, at least in cases when schools haven't made progress for decades. "When it becomes clear that a school or district is unable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to serve their students well, we must act to intervene more directly," Tuck wrote.

Meanwhile, Tuck's opponent for schools chief, Tony Thurmond, a state assemblyman who has been endorsed by the California Teacher's Association, also says the dashboard could be made more user-friendly, although he likes that it considers "more than test scores." And he touted a proposal he's worked on in the legislature to provide funding to districts to help low-achieving students and those with special needs.

The governor's race could also prove key for ESSA, since the governor appoints the state board of education. Gavin Newsome, the state's lieutenant governor, is expected to win overwhelmingly. He's big on community schools, early-childhood education, and data transparency. His Republican opponent, John Cox, a businessman, wants to expand charter schools.

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Florida gubernatorial candidates U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gilllum 

Florida

Background: Advocates for English-language learners and racial minorities are really, really unhappy with the state's ESSA plan. Florida is factoring progress towards English-language proficiency into a separate, federal-only accountability system, not the A-through-F rating system that most parents are familiar with. What's more, research by the Education Trust, an advocacy organization in Washington, and others have criticized the state for giving "A" grades to schools where subgroups of students are falling behind.

But after the election, there will definitely be new leadership in the governor's mansion and likely the state chief's office. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, is running for U.S. Senate. The governor gets to appoint the members of the state board of education, who hire the education commissioner. So it's likely that the current chief, Pam Stewart, will end up stepping down. Advocates are also eyeing the legislature, which is in GOP control. The entire state House of Representatives and 22 of the state Senate's 40 seats are up for grabs.

"We are somewhat hopeful in Florida with a change of the guard that we can open up conversations around ESSA," said Callie Kozlak, the field campaign manager for education policy at UnidosUS, which advocates for Latinos.

Candidates: Andrew Gillum, a Democrat and mayor of Tallahassee, who has been endorsed by the state's teachers' unions, hasn't said much about the ESSA plan. Instead, he's campaigned on increasing education funding and paying teachers more. But advocates believe he might be more likely to take a second look at the ESSA plan, compared to his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has closely identified himself with President Donald Trump.

Arizona

Background: Civil rights advocates aren't happy with how the state's plan handles subgroups of students.

"We'd like to see more weight put on subgroups in [the A-F school rating system] so that schools are getting more credit, more incentives to serve" those students," said Kozlak of UnidosUS.

Arizona was the site of a massive teacher protest this year over education funding, educator pay, and more. The state is also trying to figure out how to square a state law that seeks to offer schools a choice of tests with ESSA's requirement that all students statewide take the same exam.  

Candidates: It's not as clear where the candidates stand here, but a new chief could mean a new direction. And the state will definitely have a new schools chief: Diane Douglas, a Republican, lost her primary The race is close. Democratic nominee Kathy Hoffman, a teacher, has been an advocate for bilingual education, which Kozlak takes as an encouraging sign. Frank Riggs, her Republican opponent, is a former congressman who represented a district in California. He cites DeVos' and Trump's support of local control on his campaign website.

In the race for governor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is up for re-election, and seems unlikely to push for major change to the state's ESSA plan. His Democratic opponent, David Garcia, an education professor, has championed more funding for education, including early-childhood education. It's less clear where he stands on accountability issues.

Readers: Where else could the midterm election matter for ESSA plans? Email me at [email protected].

This combination of photos shows gubernatorial candidates Steve Pearce, left, on July 30, 2018 and Michelle Lujan Grisham on July 2, 2018, in Albuquerque, N.M. --AP

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, left and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, right, during a CNN debate Oct. 21, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. --Chris O'Meara/AP 

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