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On Education, The States Ask: Now What?

Narciso Espiritu for NPR

The new federal education law is supposed to return to the states greater control over their public schools.

But judging from the mood recently at the annual conference of the Education Commission of the States, the states are anything but optimistic about the future, or about the new law.

The apprehension reminded me of the 1989 education summit convened by President George H.W. Bush. Back then the goal was to persuade governors to adopt a set of national education goals. All but a couple of states bought into the idea of "systemic change" with support from the federal government.

The prevailing view was that state and local control of schools wasn't working. What was needed was a national vision for educating every child, regardless of geography, race, ethnicity, sex, ability or disability across social and economic classes. That vision would drive U.S. education policy for a quarter century, and it was a big part of the No Child Left Behind Act signed by George W. Bush in 2002.

Now, with the new education law, the pendulum has swung back to the states. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, ostensibly puts them in the driver's seat.

So why aren't they happy? I heard lots of reasons at the ECS meeting in San Diego.

  • For state superintendents Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Kirsten Baesler of North Dakota, for example, it's that their states are unprepared to meet ESSA's new requirements for English Language Learners.
  • Other educators said they're worried about glaring disparities in the quality of teachers. According to Jeremy Anderson, president of the Education Commission of the States, more and more states are trying to close that gap. "Seventeen states are talking a lot more about teacher compensation, retention and recruitment," Anderson says. But some people at this year's conference predicted that, if this issue is left to the states, districts will abandon the goal of putting an effective teacher in every classroom.
  • In states and school districts with large minority populations, civil rights groups fear that with less federal oversight, states will offer only a veneer of civil rights protections for low income, racial, ethnic and language minorities.
  • Looming over all this discussion was the budget crisis in many states. "Revenue volatility" has become the euphemism for budget cuts and uncertainty. Many educators worried that the most promising, innovative reforms will inevitably lose support because they're too costly.

    In many states, the system of paying for schools leaves wide gaps between rich and poor districts, and many face lengthy and costly legal battles over equity and adequacy.

    All of which is to say that, with so many problems to address, states have had little time to prepare for ESSA.

    Here's what we know about their plans to comply with the law, thanks to a new analysis by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success. Of the 16 states and the District of Columbia that have submitted ESSA plans for approval by the U.S. Education Department, most did a pretty good job devising ways to evaluate schools, this study concludes.

    They fell short, however, in making sure the performance of ALL students is counted and in the fine print of implementation.

    "While there were promising elements," the report says, "our peer reviewers found that most state plans failed to provide significant details about how their systems would work in practice."

    That should raise some red flags concerning kids with disabilities, English language learners and those from low-income families.

    Under ESSA, states have to come up with their own deadlines to improve struggling schools as well as their own metrics for measuring improvement. States must also show they're closing the achievement gap. Even "school climate" is now on the list of things to measure.

    But what if kids aren't learning? What if dropout rates remain too high and test scores remain too low?

    ESSA says there must be consequences for doing little or nothing to solve these problems, but if a hammer comes down on school districts, it will have to come from the state, not the federal government.

    As Mike Griffith of the Education Commission of the States pointed out at the tail end of the conference in San Diego: "We are on the cusp of a huge change."

    He was referring to how schools work, whom they're accountable to and how they're funded.

    It's clear, though, that the success of this major shift hangs on a big question: Can Americans trust their states to do the right thing?

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