At Post-Election ESSA Conference, State Leaders Barely Mention Trump
State education leaders gathered here for a conference on the Every Student Succeeds Act less than a week after the Nov. 8 elections barely mentioned President-elect Donald Trump or what direction his new administration would take on hot-button issues like school choice or the future of the U.S. Department of Education.
Instead, members of the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of State Boards of Education, in a conference co-organized by the Hunt Institute, focused more on some of their states' most intractable education problems. Prime among them: how to turn around their lowest-performing schools, close persistent achievement gaps between white students and students of color, and better prepare students for college and career.
And some of those at the conference stressed that they're moving ahead even as the federal regulatory environment under ESSA remains a work in progress.
"We can't wait for the federal government anymore," said Ouida Newton, a state board member in Arkansas, who said officials in her state, after doing on-the-road outreach, are drafting the ESSA plan due for submission to the Education Department next year. "Our kids can't wait."
ESSA, for the most part, widens the options for state leaders to shape their destiny on K-12 policy. That the pending changes at the federal Department of Education were barely mentioned at an education conference on the revised federal K-12 law is a sign of just how much the power dynamic may be changing.
State leaders at the conference described a flurry of decisions they've made on their own in recent months in areas including new accountability systems, new high school exams, tweaked learning standards, and redefined graduation standards.
Organizers of the event shrugged their shoulders when asked by a reporter what to expect from a Trump administration, and speakers stuck to the broad outlines of the law, rather than the regulatory process, which is likely to change in the coming months.
Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat and the chair of the state's house education committee in Washington state, said that state has long waited to address on its own the flaws in the state's public schools. Earlier this year, she successfully pushed through HB1541, that provides several new ways for the state to address academic and discipline inequities between that state's white students and students of color.
"My fear is that we're so narrowly focused on developing the ESSA plan that we lose sight of the bigger picture," Santos said.
Washington state's department of education on Wednesday released its 241-page plan on its department website—but later took it down. The department blamed a "technical process error."
And in West Virginia, the state's board of education on Wednesday approved a new accountability system that includes, among other things, standardized test scores and 20 other factors such as graduation rates, career and technical courses, and absenteeism.
"The state board has become very active in the last year," board member Beverly Kingery said.