In a blog posted on December 12, I provided an overview of ESSA as shared by TASB Governmental Relations. While there are certainly positive aspects to this important legislation, there are also a number of issues that still need to be addressed. But that’s a topic for another blog. Instead, my focus here is on how ESSA expanded local control by local school boards, an important element in their ability to govern based on the needs of their students.
Public schools are local; the closer people are to their schools, the higher opinion they have of them. While they may be unsure of other schools, people know more about their local schools and are often passionate about supporting them. Public schools are governed by locally elected school boards that oversee management of the schools. School board trustees are a bridge between the community and the schools and need the flexibility to act in the best interests of the community and schools.
In the last few decades, public schools came more and more under the control of the federal government. With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation fourteen years ago, the federal government gained a heavy hand in determining how schools measured student performance, how they fixed struggling schools and how they determined that teachers were qualified to teach. While local school districts had lost various aspects of local control before, this top down approach was a cookie cutter approach which applied to all schools and took away even more local control. School districts implemented the legislation, often with difficulty and great cost, and the next few years were focused on high stakes testing and accountability measures – often to the exclusion of creativity in the classroom and often punitive.
However, passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which re-authorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, scales back the role of the federal government in education for the first time since the 1980’s. The law affirms the importance of local governance but also protects the federal government’s interest in Title I for disadvantaged students. It also lessens the impact of standardized testing and one-size-fits-all mandates. It appears that Congress and the White House now have an appetite for handing back local control to states and districts.
Under ESSA, there will still be required testing, but states have wide discretion about setting goals and standards, holding schools and districts accountable, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. States and school districts must continue to ensure equity for all students. And while tests will still count, there are other, multiple academic indicators as well – something local parents and communities have long been asking for. Many parents have complained about the overuse of standardized testing and the high stakes that have come with the testing. Local communities have opinions about what kinds of schools they want -- perhaps the federal government heard those voices decided that the pendulum should swing back to more local governance.
Passage of ESSA is good news for schools and communities and will usher in a new era for public education. School board trustees will have an opportunity to engage their communities about the changes and to seek their input about their dreams and goals for their public schools. Schools must continue to ensure equity, accountability and excellence, and now there will be more flexible – and local – ways to achieve those goals!