Can ESSA Force Equity?

Having worked in policy for the last two decades, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which Obama signed into law in 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The predecessor to ESSA has its roots in the civil rights movement, and this new law is another federal attempt to move toward a more equitable education system, but I also recognize the limitations of the law.

Like a tool in the hands of a carpenter, an equity law is only as good as those who are charged with implementing it. As a woman of color watching the policymaking process from the inside, I often feel frustrated and helpless when I see important decisions being made without the authority or input of anyone who looks like me.  During the past year, I’ve seen a number of discussions about ESSA– which in essence is about helping underserved students– that were comprised of majority-white policymakers and Louisiana Department of Education staff. It’s hard to understand how we continue to talk about equity in policies without first addressing the policymaking process itself. And yet, this is the same scenario happening throughout the nation and on multiple levels of government.  

This is why it does not surprise me that policy experts are “disappointed by some ESSA state plans.”  ESSA is a law that fundamentally is meant to advance equity. However, it’s clear many of the people and processes responsible for carrying out its purpose are not fully equipped with an understanding of equity or how to achieve it. We have not yet learned how to truly engage the communities most affected by these policies in order to seek their input and give weight to their feedback.  We have not achieved the significant involvement of teachers, parents, students, and community members of struggling schools in the process of creating and reviewing these types of laws and plans.

But the situation is not hopeless.  Some of the policy experts reviewing the plans, such as Erika McConduit, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana, are a reason to have hope.  During this past year, I’ve had the opportunity to see her and other advocates tirelessly advocating for more accountability in improving outcomes for students of color.  Although there are certainly not enough men and women of color in government, whether as political leaders or part of departments’ staff, there are leaders in our communities that continue to put pressure on these systems.  For the average person, it’s hard to keep up on every education law and policy or even the details of the major ones, so it is critical to have insiders who deeply know and understand both equity and policy trying to bring these two concepts into alignment in the policymaking process itself as well as within the laws and policies.

The takeaway of these “disappointing” ESSA plans is that we can’t actually force equity in education, but we can move in that direction. Achieving equity is a slow and painful process and it requires us to look deeply at race and class in America, our history, and our responsibility of deconstructing systems of privilege and oppression. That’s a tall order, and it requires a lot of patience and the realization we may not see the results of our efforts within our lifetime.  This alone is a challenge. After all, in communities of color, we see the consequences of unjust laws and policies every day, and it’s heartbreaking.  At the very least, ESSA has compelled state policymakers to have a conversation about equity. And while these laws can’t force states to take the needed steps, they can certainly give them a push.  At the end of the day, yes, some of the state plans are disappointing, but I’m still grateful for ESSA even while I see its flaws and limits.

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