Conferees met last week to finalize the next Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) bill that will replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), tentatively named “The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015” (ESSA). The new ESEA/ESSA bill cleared the joint House and Senate education subcommittee conference on a 39–1 vote last week, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) as the only official (and 2016 presidential candidate) to vote against it.
While ASBOUSA provided some preliminary information about the new ESEA/ESSA bill on Friday, below is a list of what’s known to be in the law so far. The official legislative language for the bill has yet to be released, but is expected November 30 and may feature additional changes. After the final language is released, the House will vote on the final ESEA/ESSA bill December 2 or 3. Provided it passes, the Senate will cast its vote during the week of December 7. Officials hope the bill will go to the President’s desk by the end of the year.
Federal Role in Schools and Academic Standards
- The Department of Education (ED) and ED Secretary’s powers have been significantly reduced.
- ED will no longer be able to mandate specific academic standards like the Common Core. ED can require states to have “challenging academic standards” but can’t mandate any specifics; that is up to states now.
- ED will no longer be a “National School Board,” since the new ESEA/ESSA prohibits the ED Secretary from “interfering with state prerogatives on teacher evaluation, testing, standards, school turnarounds, and more.”
Annual Testing, Transparency, and Accountability Requirements for States and Schools
- Annual testing is still required for grades 3–8 and once in high school. There is also a 1% cap “on the number of students with disabilities who can take alternate assessments.” States can now set targets for the amount of time students spend on standardized tests too.
- States will now determine how much tests should be tied to teacher evaluations and school performance ratings. They can also consider other factors like school climate, school safety, access to advanced classwork, and the quality of student/parent engagement for evaluations.
- POLITICO says states will have to measure school performance at least in part (51%) by test scores, graduation rates, and students’ English-language proficiency. The other 49% includes other measures like student/parent engagement and school climate.
- Conferees noted they hope these changes in the bill “will encourage state and local school officials to abandon the extra tests they say were added during a federal overemphasis on test scores.”
- States must identify and intervene in the bottom 5% of their schools that struggle to provide a quality education for specific student groups (English-language learners, low-income, minority, and special education students) and for schools with low graduation rates. However, ED can no longer issue prescriptive policies to address these issues; states are responsible for designing and implementing school intervention plans to address these student achievement gaps now.
Education Funding, Title I, and Block Grant Programs
- An amendment that would freeze education funding levels (and prevent further education investment for the four years the law is authorized for) was rejected.
- Despite several Republican officials’ attempts to add a Title I portability amendment (whereby Title I dollars follow students to the school of their choice instead of to schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged students) to the new ESEA/ESSA, the amendment was rejected.
- Title I funding will continue to be dispersed to states and schools as is currently done; the funding formula to states will not be changed either. Before making any changes, conferees decided to commission the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to study the funding formula and report its findings back to Congress.
- On a related note, The Brookings Institute found surprisingly little evidence that Title I funding is effective, so it will be interesting to see how the IES study compares.
- The new bill eliminates almost 50 education programs, consolidating them into a single block grant that gives states/schools more flexibility with spending federal education dollars. For example, the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program has been eliminated, but now states can use up to 7% of their Title I dollars to help with school interventions and turnarounds. Also, some Title I dollars would be allowed to be used for dual enrollment programs for K–12 students taking college coursework.
- English-language learner programs will now be incorporated under Title I of the new ESEA/ESSA to help “make these children a priority.”
Pre-K, STEM, After-School Education, Student Privacy, and Other Provisions
For a snapshot of the differences between the old and new ESEA, see this table created by the Thomas Fordham Institute.
Will the new ESEA/ESSA bill become law?
Many left-leaning education reform advocates, civil rights activists, and the White House are still concerned about whether the final bill adequately protects our nations’ most disadvantaged students. However the majority seem to agree that the new ESEA bill is an improvement from the House and Senate versions passed in July (and is significantly better than No Child Left Behind). Meanwhile, conservatives are concerned with the federal overreach in schools and the level of authority current ED Secretary Arne Duncan holds—especially regarding NCLB waivers and imposing academic standards in exchange for federal education funding. If lawmakers can’t strike the right balance in the final legislative language to ensure disadvantaged students are protected while reducing the federal government’s role in schools, the possibility of a presidential veto still exists (but it isn’t expected). Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for Congress to renew a law that has been outdated for eight years, so perhaps the “bipartisan dissatisfaction” with the old NCLB will be incentive enough for officials to work together.
If the ESSA becomes the next ESEA law to replace No Child Left Behind, education leaders are going to have to make a lot of adjustments, especially regarding the level of control states and schools will have in creating their own accountability systems. One state education official shares his thoughts on what that really means for school officials and provides some tips to adapt to this new K–12 policy environment.