The grinding, two-year process of drafting accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act has upended states’ K-12 political landscape and laid bare long-simmering factions among power brokers charged with putting the new federal education law into effect this school year.
The details tucked into dozens of plans being turned in to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos this week were hammered out by a hodgepodge of elected and appointed officials—from governors and legislators to state school board members and local superintendents—during sometimes sparsely attended meetings, caucuses, and task force sessions.
Further complicating matters, 12 governors, half the nation’s state superintendents, and half of legislatures’ education committee chairpersons are new to office since the passing of ESSA in December 2015, when significant policy leeway was handed back to the states from the federal government.
“The problem with devolution and decentralization is that, by definition, you’re going to get a lot of variation … in terms of effort, political will, and the effectiveness of those efforts,” said Patrick McGuinn, a political scientist at Drew University in New Jersey who has studied state and federal policy and followed the implementation of ESSA.
In many cases, politicians, lobbyists, and membership organizations used their political prowess, technical expertise, and longevity to successfully push their agendas in the crafting of 51 state-level ESSA accountability plans.
Hammering out plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act has been a source of tension for rival policymakers in many states.
Governors in Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, and Wisconsin rejected their states’ ESSA plans after the required 30-day review process. The plans can be submitted without governor approval—indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos approved Louisiana’s plan—but such a thumbs-down indicates to the federal Education Department that there’s not political consensus over details.
State Boards of Education
In states such as Delaware, North Carolina, Washington, and West Virginia, legislatures attempted to strip the powers of their state boards of education over key education policy areas even as the states readied their approaches to ESSA implementation. In North Carolina, the state board sued the legislature over an education law passed during a special session that board members said violated the state’s constitution.
Lawmakers in states such as Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio, and West Virginia passed bills that dictated components of states’ ESSA plans regarding school accountability and testing. That left local superintendents and state board members frustrated.
State superintendents in Alabama, Colorado, and New Mexico resigned in the middle of the ESSA-planning process after high-profile debates over key policies, leaving practitioners in the lurch and states in some instances making last-minute changes.
But the nature of state politics left out other groups, some of which will spend the coming months restructuring their spending and staffing priorities to more effectively lobby in the inevitable battles to come over the new law.
“The politics of federalism is going to dramatically change going forward,” said Sandra Vergari, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany who has studied federal education policy. Following all 50 states “is going to be a lot more work for us scholars, policy analyst, and advocates.”
Unlike prior federal versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA required “meaningful stakeholder engagement” in crafting state plans—without defining who a stakeholder is or how much or what type of engagement needs to be conducted.
Many state superintendents said shortly after ESSA was passed that they had a natural incentive to put an end to years of polarizing debates over standards, accountability, and testing. But as the ESSA planning process unfolded, power grabs ensued in a number of states. Those traditionally in charge of education policy sparred with each other and with lawmakers eager to take on a share of the new responsibility.
In North Carolina, for example, the Republican-controlled legislature—just days before Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took office this winter—decided during a special session that the state board should no longer oversee key accountability and school turnaround decisions, and that those decisions should be left up to the state’s recently appointed Republican state superintendent.
The board sued, and a judge decided last week to delay the law, which has held up the state’s ESSA planning process.
Delaware’s legislature stripped its state board of several powers, and a pending bill in Washington would scrap that state’s board of the ability to oversee portions of its accountability system.
And after years of infighting, Indiana’s legislature decided this year that the state’s elected superintendent should instead be appointed by the governor.
In other states, crucial policy decisions over testing, state goals, and how to define an ineffective teacher fanned flames between advocacy groups and politicians.
The governors in Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, and Wisconsin all refused to sign off on their states’ plans before sending them to Secretary DeVos. (A plan still can be turned in without the governor’s signature.)
And Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley asked DeVos to send the plan back (something his office is not allowed to do) after he took issue with portions that dealt with special education students. That state’s board-appointed superintendent involved more than 300 people in the development of the plan, a process the lieutenant governor said still left the state’s special education community without a voice.
“What we have in our system is all these interest groups across the political spectrum that have a lot of power and say,” said Calley, who has a child with special needs. “There’s no organized group with PACS and electoral power in our system that represents the parents.”
State superintendents, many with their own political agendas, were left walking a political tightrope in some states. Several didn’t survive.
In a political snub, Hawaii’s since-replaced state Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi wasn’t invited by Democratic Gov. David Ige to sit on the state’s ESSA task force.
New Mexico’s secretary of education, Hanna Skandera, resigned in June shortly after turning in her state’s controversial plan, which upset the state’s teaching force. And just last week, Alabama Superintendent Michael Sentance resigned after a bruising evaluation by the state’s district superintendents who took issue with his leadership style and the ESSA development process.
Advocates Weigh In
National, state, and local advocacy organizations all scrambled throughout ESSA planning to adjust to the fluid situation. A board meeting in California in July, for example, fielded dozens of comments protesting the state’s proposed accountability system.
In other states, advocates skipped state board meetings and went straight to their legislature.
Maryland’s Democratically-controlled legislature, pressured by the state’s teachers’ union, effectively wrote the state’s accountability system into a law called “Protect Our Schools Act.” The bill survived Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto and inflamed state board of education members who accused politicians of trapping students in failing schools.
Ohio’s teachers’ union and parent groups managed to convince the state’s superintendent in the spring to stall the turning in of that state’s plan after they convinced enough people that the plan would ramp up school testing.
And Kentucky’s legislature passed as part of its new ESSA-aligned accountability system a sweeping education bill that mostly scrapped a historic school governance model that had elevated parent voices in the form of school-based-decision-making councils.
The battle pitted Kentucky’s politically weak parent groups against the state’s well-financed superintendents’ association and teachers’ union. It flew in the face of a working relationship the three parties had forged over the years in fighting for more school funding from the legislature as the coal industry collapsed.
“We’ve been together for so long and through so much together,” said a disappointed Lynne Slone, the attorney for the Kentucky Association of School Councils.
In Florida, Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a civil rights activist for minority and English-language-learner students, said she will shift her efforts to the local level if the state’s ESSA plan passes federal muster. Castro-Feinberg launched a petition and letter-writing and media campaign to stop several waiver requests from being attached to that state’s plan, an effort that ultimately failed.
Others, however, see an opportunity for advocates and policymakers to forge ties across state lines in the wake of the sometimes-tense ESSA planning, especially on common issues such as the achievement gap, the effects poverty has on schools, and stagnant student performance.
“For some states that are diving into this more deeply, doing the soul-searching, you’re seeing a lot less partisanship,” said Michelle Exstrom, the Education Program Director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Education shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I think when you have a sense of urgency, you figure out that it’s in everyone’s best interest to improve outcomes, and leaders get motivated to go to the table to fix it.”