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ESSA Pushes State Schools Chiefs to Scrap Business as Usual

St. Louis

State education chiefs are scrambling staff duties and outsourcing tasks such as data collection and school improvement efforts as they prepare for new responsibilities under the Every Student Succeeds Act—at the same time they cope with continued funding and staffing pressures.

ESSA, which goes into effect for accountability purposes next fall, is a mixed blessing in the view of state superintendents who have long asked for more flexibility to figure out on their own how best to improve student outcomes.

One big challenge: Budget cuts in recent years have left large swaths of state education departments squeezed on the capacity to carry out the training, data collecting, and innovation necessary to fully exploit that flexibility.

That tension was top of mind this month as the Council of Chief State School Officers gathered here for its annual policy forum.

With all their ESSA accountability plans now submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval, state education agencies in the coming months move into the implementation phase, which has the potential to be more arduous and politically contentious than the planning phase that took place over the previous two years.

In states such as Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, state chiefs have set up new offices within their agencies to handle ESSA duties while scrapping others, dispatched some responsibilities to regional offices and school districts, and launched communication campaigns to shore up political support for new accountability systems.

‘Greatly Reduced’

“We are thin, and our capacity has been greatly reduced,” said Margie Vandeven, Missouri’s education commissioner. “We have to rethink how we can better support more teachers in the classroom.”

The stakes are high. The average state chief lasts just over two years in the job. Many here spoke of the need to get ESSA right in order to restore trust in their offices; calm debates over standardized testing, standards, and accountability; and create a sense of stability and direction for education practitioners.

“You’re put under the spotlight, and you have to withstand the heat and weather the storm over a long period of time,” said Melody Schopp, South Dakota’s secretary of education. “It’s going to be more and more difficult for us to withstand the political winds.”

At the gathering, state chiefs and their deputies, along with consultants, discussed ways to better support students with disabilities and English-language learners, how to better collect and report new data required under ESSA, and how best to comply with ESSA’s financial-transparency requirement.

Carey Wright, Mississippi’s superintendent, was appointed as the organization’s next board president, and CCSSO has started a search for an executive director after Chris Minnich resigned to take a job as the executive director of NWEA, a nonprofit organization that crafts assessments for students.

And those at the conference heard from Jason Botel, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the federal Education Department until a nominee is formally named and confirmed. Botel encouraged states to be innovative in their approaches to closing the nation’s yawning achievement gaps between students of color and white students, while also complying with ESSA. The federal department’s role, he said, is no longer to dictate to states how to do their jobs.

“This is a collaborative, iterative process,” said Botel, whose office is in the thick of evaluating 34 state ESSA plans—a process he says has overloaded his staff. “This is not a gotcha process.”

But that means, he said, there will be more pressure on states in the coming years.

“We know the only way kids are going to be educated is under your leadership,” Botel told the state leaders. “You have a lot of work to do after your plans are approved.”

Hurdles Ahead

Chiefs at the conference and in recent phone interviews with Education Week described several hurdles to implementing their ESSA plans.

The law shifts to districts the ability to design their own school turnaround strategies, requires states to collect and report to the public more data on school spending and average teacher salaries, and mandates they incorporate some of that data into accountability systems.

“Before, we just checked the boxes,” said Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s education secretary. “We were a regulatory department. Now, we have to be much more transformative. That’s extremely difficult when you’re dealing with employees who have been regulatory agents their whole careers.”

State chiefs said they have had to dramatically reorganize their already-thin staffs in order to be much more collaborative and supportive of school districts. And they have to figure out areas in which they can no longer do the work on their own because of staffing and competing demands, and instead, outsource that work to vendors in areas such as data collection and school improvement.

Although school spending, generally speaking, is up by 4 percent this fiscal year, state departments, which are heavily reliant on federal dollars, have experienced dramatic budget cuts in recent years.

Belt-Tightening Impact

Those cuts did not abate after ESSA was passed, state chiefs said at the conference. In some instances, legislatures slashed state departments’ budgets at the same time they were heaping more responsibilities on them.

In Kentucky, for example, the legislature, during its last session, cut by 17 percent the state department’s budget, forcing schools chief Stephen L. Pruitt to let go several staff members. That was shortly after the legislature implemented a new accountability system that bolstered state and local school boards’ powers.

In Wyoming, the state in October halved its school improvement budget, forcing the education department to end its contract with AdvancED, an accreditation agency that had previously operated its accountability system.

And in Montana, Elsie Arntzen, the superintendent of public instruction, said that since being elected in 2016, she’s been tasked with cutting 10 percent of her department, a process that’s forced her to re-evaluate the department’s role and districts’ role.

“I’ve been trying to listen a lot more to local school districts so that I can better target precious dollars,” Arntzen said.

Over the past five years, Alaska’s department of education has axed close to a third of its department, making it more difficult to support its many districts, which are spread out over 663,000 square miles.

“Our challenge is geography and data collection,” said Michael Johnson, Alaska’s education commissioner. “We will likely be looking for a vendor to help us out in that effort.”

Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s commissioner of education, this year set up a new three-person school improvement department that helps coordinate fiscal and training needs for principals. Every person in the department is asked to spend at least 20 percent of the time assisting academically struggling schools.

“We felt we needed to create more systems in the department to support more schools,” McQueen said.

Maryland’s state Superintendent, Karen Salmon, who noted that the department has shed 250 people in the past decade, set up a research department this year in order to comply with the law’s requirement that districts’ school turnaround strategies be researched-based.

“Anytime we see a state agency, we always know there’s a lot of red tape,” said Salmon. “What I’ve been trying to do is streamline our operations so that we can be more responsive to local school systems’ needs.”

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