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State Chiefs Group Says Superintendents Have Final Say on State ESSA Plans

As the first deadline for the Every Student Succeeds Act arrives, there have been sharp disagreements between advocacy groups and state-level politicians on key policy decisions. 

Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, reached out to me to provide some clarification on State Education Agencies' authority in the coming months. 

ESSA in several key areas requires stakeholder input through "timely and meaningful engagement."  Indeed, early on in the ESSA-planning process, many state superintendents traversed their states, engaging with parents, teachers, and administrators in hours-long town hall meetings. Governors get 30 days to review ESSA plans before their submission to the U.S. Department of Education.  

But as departments have begun to release first, second, and third drafts of accountability plans to gather more feedback, constituents are inevitably split on policy decisions regarding statewide goals, testing and accountability systems.  

For example, Elsie Arntzen, Montana's new Republican superintendent, wants to rescind her predecessor's accountability plan after it was turned into the federal government shortly before the end of state chief Denise Juneau's tenure. 

Chris Reykdal, Washington's recently elected superintendent, wants to take from the state board and place under the his office's and the legislature's control several key decisions regarding the state's accountability system.  

A panel appointed by Louisiana Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is pushing for a separate accountability system from the one state Superintendent John White has created. Panel members recently voted to delay the time the plan is turned into the federal government.  

At the end of the day, Zamora said, state education departments have the final say over accountability plans. 

"Consultation is not the same as approval," Zamora said.

Since the creation of Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, SEAs have been in charge of distributing federal dollars to local education agencies, or school districts.  

Under ESSA, governors can sign off on accountability plans at the end of their 30 days of review to show the federal government that the plan has their endorsement, but a signature is not necessary, Zamora said.

Louisiana superintendents, for example, could create their own accountability system, as they say they'd like to do, but it's the SEAs accountability system that dictates how federal dollars are distributed, Zamora said.  

And Montana's and Washington's sitting superintendents have the final say over their state plans.  

"It's the SEA that's on the hook for compliance," Zamora said. 

That doesn't mean department officials are free to do whatever they want. Most are overseen by a board, and state boards of education in recent years have been quick to fire state superintendents.  Many states' legislatures also have specified education policy as is the case in West Virginia and Kentucky this year where it's the legislature's education committees that have taken control of the state's ESSA plans.  

As I wrote earlier last month, the National Conference of State Legislatures is urging state officials to make sure any major changes in state ESSA accountability plans align with state policy. 


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