Education Week - July 19, 2017 - 18
GOVERNMENT & POLITICS
States Bristle as Ed. Dept. Rolls Out ESSA-Plan Feedback
By Andrew Ujifusa
The back and forth between states and
Washington over the Every Student Succeeds
Act has become more complicated than many
Although U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy
DeVos took office in February pledging to let
states seize control of key education policy
decisions under the new federal K-12 law,
her department's responses to states' ESSA
plans have surprised-and in some cases irritated-state leaders and others.
The U.S. Department of Education has expressed skepticism about elements of those
plans, from the ambitiousness of long-term academic goals to the use of Advanced Placement
exams in state accountability systems.
Last month, the Council of Chief State School
Officers said the first set of feedback to three
states was "too prescriptive in certain areas and
goes beyond the intent of the law." Early indications are that states won't necessarily make
sweeping changes just to please DeVos' team.
And in an interview, Sen. Lamar Alexander,
R-Tenn., one of ESSA's architects, said the feedback letters seem to fly in the face of the law's
intention that the states-not the federal government-should be calling the shots when it
comes to the details of school accountability.
"I want to nip in the bud the idea that somehow it's business as usual in Washington,"
The department's responses to states
haven't been entirely consistent. For example,
Delaware-one of the first three states to
get feedback from federal officials about its
ESSA plan-was told by peer reviewers that
its proposed use of AP courses for measuring
college- and career-readiness wouldn't fly. But
the department didn't voice the same concerns
about similar approaches in plans submitted
by Louisiana and Tennessee.
For states, there's a balancing act between
wanting to submit a plan that will pass legal
muster at the department and wanting to take
advantage of the flexibility that's in ESSA, said
Julie Rowland Woods, a policy analyst with the
Education Commission of the States who has
been tracking states' work on the law.
"There's sort of mixed messages coming from
the department, and states are really looking
for guidance on how they can complete these
plans in an appropriate way," Woods said.
So far, 17 plans have been submitted to the
department from 16 states and the District of
In June, department leaders raised concerns
about elements of Delaware's plan. Among other
issues, they indicated that the state's long-term
academic goals weren't truly "ambitious" (a
term that is used in ESSA but is not defined by
the law), and that the state's plan to use yardsticks like AP scores was a nonstarter.
But in a revised plan the state sent to Washington later that month, Delaware kept options
such as AP for schools to use to measure postsecondary readiness, saying that contrary to the
department's feedback, all options listed were
universally available to schools serving grades
9-12. And it declined to change those long-term
goals, saying that regardless of the department's
view of what counts as "ambitious," the state's
push to cut in half the ranks of students not pro-
ficient in math and English/language arts by
2030 represented a big challenge.
"To reach these goals for the lowest-performing subgroups, it requires approximately a 3
percentage-point increase in proficiency year
over year, which is extremely ambitious for our
[districts]," a Delaware department spokeswoman, Alison May, said.
States are really looking for
guidance on how they can
complete these plans in an
JULIE ROWLAND WOODS
Education Commission of the States
Still, the state did change how it planned
to use science- and social-studies-test scores,
after being told by the department that using
them as they planned to do in their original
submission would violate ESSA.
Nevada moved its science tests out of the core
academic-achievement indicator and under the
school quality and student-success umbrella in
its revised plan, said the state's deputy superintendent for student achievement, Brett Barley.
However, he said that many of the changes
in the plan Nevada resubmitted last month
involved filling in gaps for the department,
including providing features like interim aca-
demic goals and more information about the
relative weight of English/language arts and
"We never got feedback from them that made
us say, 'Wow, this is something that we don't
want to do,' " Barley said.
Neither Approval Nor Denial
After the initial round of responses to Delaware, Nevada, and New Mexico, the federal department released a separate document clarifying that its feedback to states "is not an approval
or denial of a state plan; however, a state is still
required to submit a plan that complies with all
In later feedback to six other states, the department said states needed to provide more
information or be more specific about a range
of issues, from English-language learners to
which schools are identified as the lowest
The department said Connecticut's plan to use
science-test scores the same way it uses its reading and math scores in accountability doesn't
match the law; Louisiana and Tennessee got
similar warning flags in their feedback.
New Jersey, meanwhile, was told it had to provide more details as to when schools can lose the
label of lowest performing.
And Tennessee's plan raised the issue of
"super subgroups," which combine various student groups into a single one. Tennessee plans
to use such a combined group for accountability
purposes, but the department told state education Commissioner Candice McQueen that
each subgroup must count separately.
Assistant Editor Alyson Klein contributed to this story.
K-12 Funding Entangled
In States' Budget Drama
K-12 school spending this year got
caught up in budget standoffs that,
in some states, led to brief government shutdowns. And the drama
isn't over yet.
Though most state legislatures
now have wrapped up business for
the year, several this summer still
are trying to design new revenue
models, K-12 funding formulas,
and-in the case of Kansas and
Washington-awaiting court approval to assure their new school
spending plans are constitutional.
Meanwhile, the fiscal pressures
continue. Unlike the economy at
large, state revenue, for a variety
of reasons, has not fully recovered
from the recession. More people
are shopping online, which has
especially hurt state sales-tax
receipts, and while the national
unemployment rate is at historic
lows, workers' income has not rebounded as strongly as after previous recessions.
Because of decreased sales and
income tax receipts, the vast majority of states missed revenue
projections for the fiscal year that
ended June 30. Legislators over
the past few months have been
enmeshed in hostile debates over
how to distribute shrinking pots of
money to their schools.
A few states, including Georgia,
Idaho, and Tennessee, ultimately
added more money to their K-12
budgets this year, to provide for
bumps in teacher salaries or reduced class sizes. But others, such as
Alaska, Connecticut, and Oklahoma,
hacked away at their school budgets.
By Daarel Burnette II
Going to the Brink
Several states took their funding battles to the brink-and, in a
couple of cases, beyond.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a
Republican, vetoed a $36 billion
spending plan July 4 that proposed
to put an additional $350 million
in the state's public school coffers.
But the state's Democratically-controlled House of Representatives
overrode that veto, sparing a state
shutdown that would've prevented
the schools from opening this fall
and the state's credit rating being
18 | EDUCATION WEEK | July 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org
downgraded to junk status.
But as of late last week, Rauner
had yet to sign S.B. 1-which went
to the governor's desk in May-to
overhaul the Illinois K-12 funding
formula so that the state picks up
more of public schools' costs
And in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage,
also a Republican, signed a $7.1 billion budget July 4 that increases education funding by $162 million and
adds $1.15 million in state money
to the federal Head Start preschool
program. That ended a three-day
government shutdown. Last fall,
Maine residents voted to increase
taxes on those making $200,000 or
more to increase school spending, a
proposal LePage said was "illegal"
since the state's legislature, not
the voters, has taxing authority. He
vowed to ramp up his push for more
accountability on school spending.
"We emptied the war chest on everything else in the state to take
PAGE 21 >
Union members and state
workers protest at the Maine
Capitol in Augusta last month.
Gov. Paul LePage approved a
budget boosting education aid
by $162 million, but only after
a three-day partial government