ESEA Reauthorization Bill Becomes Law

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed the United States Senate on Wednesday morning with a vote of 85-12.  President Obama signed it into law yesterday morning, effectively replacing No Child Left Behind and completing a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) almost a decade in the making.  The legislation passed both the Senate and the House by a wide margin, showing a broad base of support among members of both parties.  Lawmakers called the final product a compromise that both parties could support, and had worked hard in the days leading up to the vote to allay concerns from conservatives and progressives alike.


President Obama praised the legislation, calling it a “Christmas miracle” during the signing ceremony and a “critical step forward” in documents released by the White House, saying that it will ensure accountability by “maintaining guardrails and protections for the most vulnerable students and directing federal resources toward what works in helping all children learn.”


ESSA represents a significant shift in educational decision-making authority from the federal government back to the States.  States will be responsible for setting goals and determining how they measure school success, with a few parameters set out in the law.  Schools will be evaluated based on students’ academic achievement, measures of school climate, high school graduation rates, English language proficiency, and rates of participation on standardized tests, with academic factors weighted most heavily.  States will also be responsible for carrying out comprehensive interventions in three broad categories of schools: those performing in the bottom 5%, high schools which graduate fewer than 2/3rds of their students, and those with subgroups consistently underperforming for a number of years as determined by the State.  Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) will conduct more targeted interventions and provide additional support.


Some technical changes are designed to add more flexibility for States and districts.  States will be permitted to waive the 40% schoolwide poverty requirement and districts will now be able to prioritize high schools with 50% poverty or more in the Title I “rank and serve” calculus.


Still, many portions of the new law will look familiar.  Students will still be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  LEAs and States will still have to report student achievement data disaggregated by student subgroup in order to ensure transparency and accountability, as well as teacher qualifications.


A number of current programs will be eliminated, with many more rolled into an optional Direct Student Services fund maintained by the State under Title I, and a formula-based Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant under Title IV.  These grants will allow LEAs to choose from a number of activities on which to spend their dollars (again within some statutory parameters).


Perhaps one of the more significant changes in the bill are the restrictions placed on the U.S. Department of Education.  Under the new law, the Secretary and his staff will not be able to require or incentivize the adoption of certain standards, assessments, indicators of success, or teacher evaluations, among other items, nor will they able to require changes to State and local policy in exchange for plan or waiver approval.


States and districts will have a lot of planning to do before the next school year, as the bulk of the law will go into effect over the course of the next few months.  Some grantees with multi-year grants will be allowed to finish out their grants in accordance with the award terms, but for federal formula grants the new requirements will go into effect with the July 1, 2016 allocation of funds.  Waivers approved under the large-scale ESEA waiver program will terminate on August 1, 2016.  New State and local accountability systems and interventions would be the last puzzle piece to go into play, starting in school year 2017-18.


Author: JCM

About the Author

Julia Martin is an attorney with the Washington, DC law firm of Brustein & Manasevit, PLLC. Established in 1980, the Firm is nationally recognized for its federal education regulatory and legislative practice, providing legal advice regarding compliance with all major federal education programs as well as the federal grants management requirements, including the Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR). In addition, they work with agencies on federal spending flexibility, allowability, policies and procedures, audit defense and resolution and legislative updates. The Firm provides government relations services for the National Title I Association.