Keep Your Eyes on the Every Student Succeeds Act

Louisiana advocates need to be paying more attention to the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  To understand its importance, one must also know its history.  The federal law has its roots in civil rights reform, when its first iteration, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was passed in 1965 to address poverty and limited educational opportunities for people of color.  Most of us are also familiar with the law’s 2002 update, The No Child Left Behind Act. Now, states are beginning to write new policies, known as state plans, to comply with ESSA, the most recent version of the law, passed in 2015.

ESSA presents a number of opportunities to demand equity in education. The law centers on measuring school success and clearly requires strong data collection, attention to achievement gaps, and equalizing school funding. Moreover, a number of provisions of the law focus on discipline disparities and school climate.  These are key policies that the civil rights community can and should leverage.  But the law also weakens federal oversight in favor of state responsibility. So, these opportunities will be missed if advocates do not hold the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) accountable to the underlying civil rights principles of the law. This was the fear cited by the NAACP, which stated their concern that when responsibility for education is shifted to the states, “it is often the most vulnerable students, especially students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities, who are deprived of quality educational opportunities.”

In the last few months LDOE held a statewide listening tour for the public and also several smaller meetings with stakeholders to receive feedback and share their plans to implement ESSA. Last week, they unveiled their draft plan and requested further responses at upcoming meetings this fall and winter.They will finalize the plan and submit it to the U.S. Department of Education next spring.

This is a critical time.  Louisiana’s draft state plan proposes to tweak the state’s measures of school success by relying less on test scores and more on student’s academic progress as well as considering non-academic performance indicators.  But how this will happen and the extent to which it will happen depends on community input and pressure. For example, LDOE is proposing to allow schools and school systems to select their own non-academic measures to resolve their most critical issues from a list of what they are calling “leading indicators.” This shift of state oversight to local responsibility mimics ESSA’s overall shift. And the concerns of the NAACP are once again relevant—that the most vulnerable students will continue to lose when states, and now school districts, are being left to their own devices to solve persistent issues that they have not yet been able to solve.

Take for example the issue of school discipline, which disproportionately affects students of color.  The Louisiana Superintendent’s Association and Louisiana School Board’s Association have consistently opposed policy changes that would curb the overuse of suspensions and intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline. Now, under the draft plan these same Superintendents and School Boards are presented with a list of critical issues they can choose to undertake, including overuse of suspensions.  Given their history, it seems either naïve or disingenuous to believe they will suddenly decide to address the problem.  The need for advocacy is clear.

The implementation of ESSA is a unique opportunity for advocates to push for equity in education. For that reason, a number of national as well as local organizations are paying close attention to the implementation of the new law. In New Orleans, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Urban League, and Equity in All Places are just a few of the organizations that are attempting to align their policy agendas with the provisions of the federal law.  But that’s not enough. Every parent, teacher, and student should be informed about the law. In order to truly see positive changes come from the ESSA implementation, it will be necessary for all stakeholders to team up with organizations, write to LDOE and BESE, make phone calls, and hold policymakers accountable. The timeline is moving fast, and we cannot afford to squander this chance for change.




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