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Don't Get Spun by the White House's ESSA Spin

While taking his valedictory lap, Secretary of Education Duncan has faithfully parroted the White House's ESSA talking points. The White House, you see, has been laboring to recast ESSA as a win for those hoping to continue the Washington-centric ways of NCLB. This matters a lot, because how the law is interpreted, applied, and understood will determine what the law means in practice. Consequently, it's worth scrutinizing some of the White House claims. Doing so suggests they are mostly the work of spinmeisters hoping to distort or ignore the law's clear language.

Let's consider three important examples:  

The White House claims that ESSA okays Obama's efforts to promote the Common Core because it "affirms the path taken by 48 states and the District of Columbia" to retain "challenging academic content standards" (which is Obama-ese for "Common Core").

In fact, ESSA gets Washington entirely out of the standards business. Title I, Part A, Sec. 1111 of the law declares, "The Secretary shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards . . . or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or assessments tied to such standards." Title VIII, Part F, Sec. 8526A stipulates, "No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall condition or incentivize the receipt of any grant, contract, or cooperative agreement, the receipt of any priority or preference . . . upon a State, local educational agency, or school's adoption or implementation of specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction." The Common Core is mentioned nine times in ESSA—each time in terms of rejecting or prohibiting federal coercion or influence.

The administration claims that ESSA allows Washington to continue micro-managing states to "assure" that "every child is entitled to get a great teacher" and that states are "intervening in low-performing schools." Somewhat ominously, the administration insists, "Moreover, the Department of Education has the authority it needs to ensure that states carry out their responsibilities."

ESSA does require states to develop accountability systems and devise strategies for addressing low-performing schools, but how they choose to do so is wholly up to state and local leaders. For instance, Title I, Part A, Sec. 1111 only requires  that states "Notify each local educational agency . . . in which any subgroup of students is consistently underperforming" and "ensure such local educational agency provides notification" to schools. How states choose to proceed from there is up to them. The provision goes on to make clear that "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or permit the Secretary . . . to promulgate any rule or regulation on the development or implementation of the state wide accountability system." The law makes clear that the Secretary cannot "add new requirements," "add new criteria," condition approval of state plans on their willingness to "add" or "delete" elements, or "prescribe numeric long-term goals or measurements of interim progress."

The White House claims that ESSA "includes initiatives modeled after the Administration's programs to: Establish or expand access to high-quality, state-funded preschool . . . building from the Administration's Preschool Development Grants program." At first blush, that sounds like a pretty significant expansion of the federal reach.

In fact, the preschool provision only codifies an existing program at its existing funding level. Title IX, Part B, Sec. 9212 specifies that preschool development grants will merely help states "develop, update, or implement a strategic plan that facilitates collaboration and coordination" of early childhood programs. There are no funds for extending federally-funded preschool provision. Moreover, the same section also makes clear that "nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize . . . any criterion for grants" relating to "early learning and development guidelines, standards, or specific assessments"; "specific measures or indicators of quality early learning and care"; "curriculum, programs of instruction, or instructional content"; "teacher and staff qualifications and salaries"; "class sizes and ratios of children to instructional staff"; "the scope of programs, including length of program day and length of program year"; and "any aspect or parameter of a teacher, principal, other school leader, or staff evaluation system." The fact that the administration is bragging about being allowed to fund state "strategic planning" processes for preschool mostly serves to highlight how little it won. 

Are things really this cut-and-dried? Of course not. The law runs 1,000+ pages and includes lots of throat-clearing designed to fudge differences and patch over disagreements. This creates a host of opportunities for bureaucratic mischief. (As Bowdoin prof Andy Rudalevige has observed, this is why crafty legislating can yield troubling legislation). Ultimately, what ESSA means in practice will depend on how it's implemented. At this point, though, those hoping for a more modest federal role are in strong shape, while the White House's spinmeisters are busy scrambling to spin straw into gold.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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