Educational Federalism, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the Future of Educational Policy

November 2, 2016


This week’s Green & Write post is from Dr. Andrew Saultz. Andrew Saultz is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Miami University. Dr. Saultz’s research focuses on accountability policy, educational federalism, and teacher policy. His work has been published in Educational ResearcherTeachers College RecordEducational Policy, and the American Journal of Education among others.

It is rare to see government limit its own power. Conventional wisdom, and political science literature, indicates that government tends to hold onto, or expand, power over time. So why did Congress return power to states under the Every Student Succeeds Act?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law in December of 2015, changes the role of the federal government. Most notably, the law allows states to choose certain provisions of the accountability system. For example, states will choose which ‘non-academic’ indicator (i.e. school climate, discipline, access to advanced courses) to include in evaluating schools, what assessments to use, and how to measure teacher effectiveness. ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the major federal education law. Over the last year, I spent a lot of time researching how ESSA was passed despite such Congressional partisanship, why the federal government chose to reduce its role under the new law, and what this all means for the future of educational policy. Here is what I learned.

Congress passed ESSA for three main reasons. First, Congress passed ESSA in response to executive overreach through programs like Race to the Top and NCLB waivers. The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used these programs to incentivize, and cajole, states to change laws around teacher evaluation, standards, and accountability systems more broadly. Race to the Top used stimulus funds from 2009-2010 to create a state competition that rewarded certain state policy changes. The USDOE granted states waivers from some of the provisions of NCLB, most notably the 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in reading and mathematics. This clearly unattainable goal led state policymakers to jump at the opportunity to gain flexibility from it. However, the USDOE knew that they held incredible bargaining power in this negotiation, so they mandated states to alter policy in substantial ways. Congressional leaders in both parties viewed these programs, especially the waivers, as outside the purview of the executive branch. As a result, a bipartisan consensus emerged around placing stringent limitations on the USDOE through ESSA.

Second, 2015 opened with new leadership in three of the four major Congressional leadership positions. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) took over in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) emerged as the House Education Committees ranking Democrat, while Representative John Kline (R-MN) remained the Chair. This shift in leadership allowed for fresh negotiations. Further, Speaker Boehner’s resignation reset some of the tension among House Republicans around divisions in the party, particularly between the Tea Party and others. The Tea Party had previously been seen as a coalition that obstructed efforts for a bipartisan compromise. In sum, leadership changes helped reset discussions about how to best shape the new federal role in education.

Third, major interest groups shifted their support away from federal involvement in educational policy. The two major teacher unions opposed federal efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, and began to distance their organizations from the Obama Administration. The Chamber of Commerce, National Governors Association, and over 100 civil rights groups joined the unions in support of ESSA. In short, the largest interest groups in education were all advocating for change. This broad coalition led to bipartisan congressional support for ESSA.

What does this mean for the future of federalism?

State policymakers are now tasked with making decisions about how to define teacher effectiveness, what measures to include in the school accountability system, and which standards to use. This provides an important opportunity for educators, researchers, policymakers and the public to discuss normative questions around what schools should prioritize and what is good teaching. In Ohio, the department of education is holding a number of information sessions to garner public feedback about these decisions. Now is the time to get involved in this discussion, as the new ESSA accountability system will be implemented in the 2017-2018 school year. The federal government doesn’t reauthorize major laws frequently, so these decisions are likely to be engrained in the educational system for the foreseeable future.

The role of the Secretary of Education is limited under ESSA. The law stipulates that the federal government may not define how teachers are to be evaluated or what standards or standardized test states should use. The Secretary of Education will have to be creative in how she influences state policy. While the use of waivers is very limited under ESSA, the executive branch can still bring stakeholders together, use the bully pulpit to advocate for change, and support state departments of education. While these options have less potential to create rapid policy changes, they have a better chance of creating more lasting change.

Educational policy has been rightly criticized for narrowing the curriculum and over relying on standardized test scores. While ESSA continues annual testing, it also provides an important opportunity to redefine what we measure and include in school accountability. We know that the public wants more than academic test results from their schools. ESSA provides an opportunity to make that a reality.