Congress Looks to Overturn ESSA
By Matt Shafer, CSG graduate fellow, Samantha De Forrest-Davis, CSG intern, and Elizabeth Whitehouse, CSG director of education and workforce development
The U.S. Senate passed a joint resolution on March 9 eliminating federal accountability standards introduced under the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Joint Resolution 57, which originated in the House, rescinds the U.S. Department of Education’s Accountability and State Plans Rule put in place in 2016 by the Obama administration.
The rule set guidelines for how states must implement their accountability systems based on factors such as school quality ratings and student success. The goal was to ensure that states and school districts focus on improving outcomes and student progress.
ESSA is less restrictive than its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, and gave states more independence in evaluating low-performing schools. However, proponents of the joint resolution that repeals some of the ESSA regulations argue that states need more flexibility and the imposition of federal regulations is an overreach by the federal executive branch.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the resolution once it reaches his desk. On March 13, the Department of Education issued a new consolidated template for state ESSA implementation plans in efforts to provide clarity on proceeding with ESSA implementation. The department assured educators that the updated template provides greater flexibility to education leaders to do what is best for children, while maintaining protections for disadvantaged students.
Opponents of the resolution believe the ESSA regulations include important provisions for poor students, minorities and students who are disabled and ensure states remain vigilant in identifying and correcting educational inequalities. They believe nullifying the regulations will allow schools to hide or disregard their poor performance in providing service to these disadvantaged students.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who introduced a mirror bill in the Senate last month, does not agree, saying during a recent press conference, “The department's regulation specifically violates the law. It's not a matter of just being within the authority granted by the law; we said to the department, 'You can't tell states exactly what to do about fixing low-performing schools. That's their decision.' This rule does that. And we said to the department, 'You can't tell states exactly how to rate the public schools in your state,' but this rule does that."
Trump’s first executive action after his inauguration was to freeze all Obama administration regulations that had not yet taken effect. This freeze includes ESSA accountability rules.
Since Congress unilaterally overturned these regulations using the Congressional Review Act, the U.S. Department of Education will not be able to introduce similar regulations in the future. However, the department is still allowed to provide non-regulatory guidance when states request assistance.
Revoking the regulations raises concerns by opponents to the resolution, including fears that it may disrupt ongoing state implementation of ESSA. States are currently developing their accountability systems based on the regulations set forth during the Obama administration. The deadline for submitting these plans is April 3, 2017.
Kentucky state Sen. Jimmy Higdon and New Jersey state Assemblyman Troy Singleton, who serve as bipartisan co-chairs of The Council of State Governments’ Education and Workforce Public Policy Committee, recently sent a letter to members of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to voice concerns “that the Accountability and State Plans Rule erodes Congressional intent to give flexibility back to the states to determine the best educational strategies for each state’s students.”
Higdon and Singleton advocated in the letter for state-level decision making in education stating, “Each state has unique challenges and opportunities for educational attainment, and students benefit from education policies that are crafted at the state and local level with consideration of those unique conditions.”
States may not need to start from scratch, but removing the accountability rules gives policymakers very little time to adjust. According to the Brookings Institution, 22 states have at least drafted their state plans, but only five states have released plans since Trump froze all Obama administration regulations. State education leaders may think of delaying the design of new accountability systems based on the anticipated changes.
New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has yet to directly communicate her opinion on removing these regulations, however she vocalized that states are in the driver’s seat in the development of their accountability measures. DeVos’ responses to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in a written questionnaire indicate she favors the side of states’ rights. “It is necessary and critical for states to have flexibility to determine how to identify and improve schools,” she wrote.