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ESSA's 'Stakeholder Engagement' Clause Continues to Roil State Power Brokers

Unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires "stakeholder engagement" with, among others, parents, civil rights groups, legislators and governors. ESSA doesn't define the amount or the type of engagement and, as the The Council of Chief State School Officers points out, state education departments have final say over the content of their plans. (Governors have the option of signing off on plans, but it's not required.)  

Because "stakeholder engagement" is ill-defined in the law and because there's often not a single answer to who's in charge of state education policy, the content of states' ESSA accountability plans has been caught in what's shaping up to be an ugly tug-of-war.  

Michigan, I noted late last year, had one of the nation's most extensive stakeholder-engagement processes, engaging with more than 350 people, department officials predicted at the time. The state did this through town hall meetings, conference calls and an elaborate checks and balance system.  

And yet, there seems to still be disagreement over Michigan's final plan, which it submitted to the federal department last week, as my colleague Christina Samuels noted in her On Special Education blog. 

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican, posted on his Facebook page last month a letter he sent to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos telling her that the state's plan needs further refinement to make sure students with disabilities have access to high-quality instruction.  He takes issue with the state's "n-size," or the number of students needed for subgroup accountability for special education students, pointing out that more than 61.5 percent of Michigan schools will not have to account for the performance of students with disabilities.  

Most interestingly, he calls for a public comment period that "results in careful, meaningful discussion and consideration of public feedback."  

It's a point the department, which has final say over the content of its plan, took issue with.

"While the federal law did not require the governor's signature, we took that in good faith as the administration supporting the plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Education," department spoksman William DiSessa said in a statement. "The ESSA plan that was submitted followed many months of public input, including the Lt. Governor's, and is a balanced reflection of thousands of voices across the education spectrum."  

In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a law firm, has repeatedly threatened to sue recently re-elected state Superintendent Tony Evers for his lack of engagement with that state's Republican-dominated legislature. While the state's superintendent position is non-partisan, Evers leans left.  

Last week, Evers released his plan which he said was created with input from parents, school officials and legislators during a series of town hall meetings across the state.  The plan has ambitious goals but, to the conservative legislators' dismay, does not allow for the use of vouchers or charter schools to intervene in especially low-performing schools.  

Wisconsin's house assembly's education committee passed a bill that required the department to respond to any concerns members of both House and Senate education committees had over the plan. But the Senate has yet to propose any similar legislation.  

"By bringing together a diverse set of stakeholders, we were able to advance a draft plan that met those goals, while respecting the landscape of our state," Evers said in a statement posted on the department's website.

Michigan and Wisconsin aren't alone in having power brokers wrangle over the details of their state accountability plans. 

Louisiana's Superintendent John White, who's hired by the governor-appointed state board of education, rejected recently-elected Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' request that the state wait until September to turn in its plan. 

Delaware's legislature passed a bill that required the state education department to present its plan to lawmakers before it's turned in to the federal Education Department. 

The North Carolina legislature, after attempting to strip its state board of many of its powers (the board sued in response), passed a bill that bans its education department from turning in an ESSA plan until September.  

And Elsie Arntzen, a Republican who was elected Montana's superintendent in November, retracted her predecessor's plan that had been submitted to the federal department. Arntzen said the plan was hastily put together and didn't include input from the state's legislature and school administrators.  The state will instead turn its plan in this September.  


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