Blog: The Educated Reporter

Feds: ‘E’ in ESSA Stands for ‘Equity’

Here’s a secret about federal laws: Even after Congress passes them and the president signs them, federal agencies can take actions –through writing regulations — that change their impact considerably. That worry is on full display almost a year after Congress overhauled the nation’s main K-12 education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Will states be required to come up with a single, “summative” accountability rating for each school, such as a letter grade? Will teachers be forcibly transferred between schools as districts seek to comply with new federal rules? Above all, will states and districts truly have the flexibility the new law promised?

These are just some of the concerns being raised as the U.S. Department of Education begins to implement the new federal education law, now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But a senior Education Department official said it’s important to remember why the law exists in the first place.

“[This] is a civil rights-era law; its core purpose is equity. It exists to provide additional funds, create additional supports and hold high expectations for students who have traditionally been left behind,” explained Emma Vadehra, the chief of staff for Education Secretary John King, at an Education Writers Association seminar last month. “That’s why there is a federal role in education across the board, and that’s what ESSA is about.”

‘A Complicated Law’

There are reasons for educators to like the new law, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. The revised law provides much more flexibility to states and districts to establish their own parameters for how federal dollars can be spent and how states and districts are held accountable. Still, because so much of a federal law’s implications are fleshed out in bureaucratic chambers after a bill is passed, there’s concern that ESSA’s implementation is at odds with the intent of Congress.

EWA Executive Director Caroline Hendrie, who moderated the conversation with Vadehra, said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has argued the Department of Education’s proposed regulations are overreaching and shift too much authority away from states. Sen. Alexander has encouraged states to sue if those regulations are enacted. But Vadehra said the Education Department will consider feedback from states before the regulations are finalized.

“I think it is a complicated law,” said Vadehra. “There are a lot of decisions to be made at every level of the system. I think it is not terribly surprising that there is some disagreement about how those decisions should be made, and that will play out at the state and local level around the country.”

One top concern among critics of the department’s actions is that some districts would force teachers to move between schools in order to ensure that lower-income schools still have access to more experienced teachers, who are typically lured to schools serving more affluent families.

Vadehra clarified that under ESSA, schools and districts are given more flexibility to decide where federal money can be spent to provide resources for those low-income students, such as after-school programming, early learning, additional counselors, or even teacher compensation. She made the case that experienced teachers would be motivated to teach at schools with more student services, even for slightly lower pay.

“It’s not just about that teacher’s compensation,” Vadehra said. “It’s about knowing there’s a counselor down the hall who will help their students if they need it. That will make it a more attractive place for them to stay and teach.”

She added: “It’s about knowing their students have a broad array of wraparound services or after-school opportunities that will make the school a more attractive place for them to stay and teach. So I think we see it as appropriate that districts will have the ability to determine how the funds will be spent.”

Debates Over ‘Supplement, Not Supplant’

Another contentious provision of the law is the “supplement, not supplant” rule. It was added to the ESEA in 1970, five years after the original act was passed. Vadehra explained that at the time, Congress made it very clear that funds under the Title I program for disadvantaged students were intended to be supplemental to state and local funds, not to replace them.

“You guys see it every day. I think we all know that the schools that need the most get the least and these dollars are meant to help with that, not work against it,” she said.

(See EWA’s webinar on how wealthy districts benefit from federal funds meant for schools with low-income students.)

The Education Department, in draft regulations, gives states and districts different ways to prove that they are, in fact, complying with this provision of the law.

Vadehra said districts could compare the student funding levels at schools eligible for Title I aid (based on their share of low-income students) with those that are not. She also said states can come up with their own measurements for demonstrating compliance.

For all of its challenges and complications, Vadehra said she believes ESSA will continue the momentum seen in many states and districts.

“And I think that’s worth noting, because it gets lost — ESSA says states have to have college- and career-ready standards,” Vadehra said. “That’s a transition almost every state has already made. ESSA says focus on your lowest-performing schools and those with the biggest sub-group challenges.”

She added: “Those are transitions states have already made. And so, a lot of this is building on progress we’ve made.”