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Making ESSA Work in the States

It may not be as sexy as the debates over vouchers, Detroit charter schools, "privatization," or grizzly bears that have dominated the agenda over the past month or two, but the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues apace. Indeed, in some states, the work has been underway for the better part of a year and rolls on even as the Trump administration delays Obama-era ESSA regulations and Congress weighs whether to permanently overturn them.

In fact, with a new Department of Education seemingly more inclined to abide by what ESSA actually says and less inclined to make things up as it goes along (see: Obama ED's adventures with "supplement not supplant"), states have big opportunities when it comes to testing, accountability, school improvement, and more—and the responsibility to take advantage of them. After long years of frustration with No Child Left Behind and Obama-era NCLB "waivers," it's put up or shut up time for state officials and educational leaders. To try and help policymakers, advocates, and educators charged with making this all work, Max Eden and I have just issued a new book, The Every Student Succeeds Act: What It Means for Schools, Systems, and States.

Very, very obviously, plenty of others are trying to offer guidance as well. One of the best bets for help is the Council of Chief State School Officers, which has a raft of useful tools to offer. Some of the most intriguing resources don't deal with accountability and testing—where a lot has been said—but with ESSA's non-accountability provisions regarding things such as the planning process, spending rules, and state requirements for districts.

Helping sort all of this out for CCSSO are the twin legal-eagles at the Federal Education Group, Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, who've made a mission of helping states and school systems figure out how to do what they deem best for kids—and not just what they think the paperwork permits. After all, the non-accountability requirements states adopt will influence how districts spend federal funds and deliver student services.

Junge and Krvaric point out places that states get stuck. They note that, under NCLB, one state tried to encourage LEAs to spend Title I on social and emotional learning. The problem: the state didn't include social and emotional learning as an option in the local-to-state application for Title I funds. LEAs limited their spending only to the options included on the application, which in turn limited the services offered to students. They similarly note that, under NCLB, some states restricted local spending beyond what federal law required. For example, some states prohibited districts from spending Title I on school climate supports, counselors, science, or other costs other than reading and math, even though that wasn't required by federal law and didn't reflect state policy priorities.

These kinds of issues sound like head-slapping one-offs, but they're not; these kinds of implementation issues are pretty typical, especially given the complexity of federal law. The result is that states and school districts find it tricky to navigate what is required and how money can be spent, which leads to funds being used in "safe" and "permissible" ways rather than the ways that educators deem most useful.

As states focus on rolling out their ESSA plans, it's important that they think about how the pieces fit together. For example, Junge and Krvaric note that ESSA allows states to reserve some Title II money for state activities to support principals and school leaders—a priority for many states. At the same time, ESSA changes the Title II formula for distributing money to LEAs, meaning some school districts will get less and others more than they used to. Therefore, states need to take this entire picture into account when contemplating whether to reserve funds.

Anyway, CCSSO has a bunch of resources to help states as they wrestle with the details of the law. Here are three that will be especially useful for those thinking about the financial and rule-making dimension of ESSA. Maximizing ESSA Formula Funds for Students: State Readiness Self-Assessment identifies state practices that hindered effective implementation of NCLB programs and suggests how states can do better this time. Decision Guide for ESSA Implementation: State Considerations for Effective Grant Programs walks through the key non-accountability rule-changes under ESSA and flags issues that states need to consider as they address the changes. Developing Effective Guidance: A Handbook for State Educational Agencies explains how states can give local districts the kind of guidance they need to make ESSA work for their students.

I'd encourage you to check them out, and good reading.

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