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Not Everyone Likes Their State's ESSA Plan. Here's Why That Matters.

This week, I wrote about the political havoc the Every Student Succeeds Act has caused between state and local leaders over the course of the last two years. Governors in some states have refused to sign off on plans, legislatures have stripped state boards of their power at a crucial time, and at least three state chiefs abruptly resigned even as states were readying their plans for ESSA implementation.  

ESSA has roiled the political landscape in states, and there are sure to be battles in the near future—next year's election season will include nearly 20 governorships, and close to 80 percent of states' legislatures are up for reelection.  

Here are a few reasons why these raucous debates concern policy observers and advocates:    

Implementation: After state ESSA plans are approved, state departments ask school districts to create their own ESSA plans. If local superintendents, principals, and teachers don't think much of the state's new accountability plan, they could drag their feet on implementation. We saw some of this sort of backlash with the wars over Highly Qualified Teacher, Common Core State State Standards,  and A-F accountability systems, where opponents effectively delegitimized the initiatives in state houses, school board meetings, and teachers' lounges.  State departments were left attempting to rebrand iniatives or toss them altogether.  

"Without community input, it just makes it incredibly hard to get any implementation with fidelity," said Kathy Cox, a former state superintendent of Georgia told me last year. "Even if people don't always agree with what the state policy or what the decision is, if they feel like they've been well-informed and that there's been a very good reflective process on why a decision is being made, people will come around."

In addition, Carissa Moffat Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said"In a perfect world, you don't just get feedback, step back, and implement. You're in it for the long haul. It's the standing engagement along the way as it's being implemented that also matters. Without that feedback, we risk living in a vacuum where we're not improving the process that would transcend education for all kids."

FundingAny new statewide initiative tucked into ESSA plans will require millions of dollars worth of training, tools and personnel (think here about all those new "fifth indicators" states want to include in their accountability systems).  Indeed, some of that initial money will come from the federal government.  But a large portion will eventually have to come from the governor and the legislators, who hold the K-12 pursestrings in states. States aren't particularly flush with money this year, and many legislatures next year are expected to look at overhauling their school funding formulas.  

In addition, with Republicans controlling the majority of state houses, many legislatures have attempted to slash away at bureaucratic overhead to cut taxes. State departments in recent years have experienced mass layoffs (Louisiana's legislature last year contemplated completely defunding its department), and states have a long history of being overwhelmed with initiatives they don't have the staff to carry out.  

Tara Kini, a senior policy adviser for the Learning Policy Institute, a research and advocacy organization, told me during an ESSA training session for legislators and state board members: "There's been a lot of attention to building stronger accountability systems, but not as much attention to building capacity at the state level to change the outcomes for kids." 


Researchers have concluded that education initiatives take around 3-5 years before you can start seeing results.  So it concerns a lot of folks that the average tenure of state superintendents (those tasked with coming up with and implementing most statewide education iniatives) hovers at around two years now. In addition, more than half of states' legislatures had this year at least one new education committee chairperson. At least three chiefs (Colorado, New Mexico, and Alabama) were fired or resigned during the ESSA planning process alone. 

With each new chief and legislative leader, there's a reboot and, oftentimes a new iniative school leaders will have to implement. 

"Seeing all this disruption at the top levels can be unnerving to the education community," said Michelle Exstrom, the education program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Experience always matters because you need the legislators who tend to be more experienced and have a better sense of different education policy approaches that have been tried through the years."

"New legislators and superintendents are not interested in inheriting someone else's agenda and then sustaining it," said David Conley, a researcher at the University of Oregon, in Portland, who studies education policy. "You can't go back to constituents and say, 'Look at what I did.' "

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