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States' ESSA Plans Now Entering the Legislative Phase

As state legislative sessions forge ahead, you'll start to see states' Every Student Succeeds Act accountability plans vetted by lawmakers as the new law requires.  

Unlike for waivers from ESSA's predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, or applications for the Race to the Top program, the federal government requires state boards of education to show that state education agencies have conducted "meaningful" consultation with state legislatures over their ESSA plans. In addition, governors have 30 days to review a plan before it's submitted to the federal Department of Education. 

The meaningful consultation clause is one both the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Association pushed for after the battles over the Common Core State Standards led to many state politicians complaining that the standards were implemented without their knowledge.  

Other than givng ESSA plans widespread political support, there are some more-technical benefits to having ESSA plans vetted by legislators, Michelle Exstrom, NCSL's education program director told me on the phone Monday.   

One is monetary.  Any new initiatives tucked into plans will need financial backing, and legislators control states' purse strings. One of the reason many folks thought the rollout of the common core was so clumsy was that department officials had few financial resources to pay for professional development for teachers and administrators. Since states are adding new indicators to their accountability systems or sometimes rolling out new assessments for high school students and English-language learners, they'll need their legislatures to set aside money to pay for consultants, equipment, and professional development for the new programs.

Another reason for legislative support is having states' statutes match state school boards' education policies. If, for example, a state's assessment policy doesn't match state law, a school board could sue a state department or simply not at all comply with the measure, Exstrom said. 

Since ESSA touches on several corners of the education policy arena, any major changes may need legislative approval.  

Exstrom said legislators in recent weeks have been asking in-the-weeds questions about flexibility states have under ESSA and how other states are vetting state plans.  

Plans can be vetted in several ways. Some legislators were asked to sit on or even chair ESSA task force committees over the winter. Some states may ask department officials to testify at committee hearings.  

Some states, such as Oklahoma and Maine, have laws that require state educatio department officials to introduce as legislation to the House or Senate any changes to their educationn plan. 

Last week, Tennessee's education department got a bill introduced that would, among other things, expand its accountability system, offer more flexibility to local school districts, and update statewide goals.  

"This legislation is designed to take advantage of the opportunities ESSA provides for more local decisionmaking and flexibility for our schools, particularly in the areas of district and school accountability and improvement," Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told the Tennessean.


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