ESSA Dear Colleague Letter Offers Guidance on Implementation

A letter sent this morning from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) offered some insight into how the agency plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the recent overhaul of federal education law.
The letter, sent from Senior Advisor Ann Whalen, says that agency officials and staff are planning to provide ongoing guidance during the transition to the new law, but offers answers on five key topics.
First, ED notes that it still plans to use its authority to review State plans to, by extension, review the assessments adopted by States pursuant to the new law.  However, it will alter the timeline for peer review – the January window for review will be cancelled; the two available windows will now occur in April and June 2016.
ED also notes that many States which implemented new assessments in the last school year are preparing new goals and objectives for ED to review.  In light of the new law, however, which requires States to establish new long-term State-designed goals, ED will not require States to submit new Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) in January 2016, nor will it require States to report performance against those AMOs for the 2014-15 or 2015-16 school year.  In addition, ED says it will not require States to hold districts accountable for their performance against a number of AMOs under Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) for either school year 2014-15 or 2015-16.  However, States and districts will still have to report data each year in report cards which show achievement of students and subgroups – the difference is that these report cards will not have to compare actual performance to those AMOs.
Given the transition to the new law, ED notes that it will no longer be reviewing or approving requests for large-scale ESEA waivers and will no longer require States to submit follow-up responses to waiver renewals in areas of flexibility that are not required under the new law.  ED staff will contact each State to clarify which follow-up actions must still be carried out.
ED also offers instruction on how to transition school interventions to the requirements of the new law.  ED provides States operating under ESEA waivers with two options: first, they may maintain current identification, “freezing” the list of priority and focus schools as of ESSA’s date of enactment, December 10th.  Those schools would have to continue their approved interventions through the rest of this school year and the 2016-17 school year.  Alternately, States may identify new groups of priority and focus schools and implement any required or planned interventions in those schools through the 2016-17 school year.  States must inform ED of which option they are selecting.  Despite this guidance for waiver States, ED has not made clear what States without ESEA waivers are meant to do in this situation – whether they will also be able to pause accountability determinations, or whether they will have to identify a new selection of schools for improvement. 
Finally, ED notes that teacher and principal evaluations implemented under the waivers must continue through the waivers’ end date of August 1, 2016 – though these evaluations will not be required under ESSA once the waivers are terminated.
This is likely only the first of many letters and memoranda that ED will provide as States work to transition to the new law.

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 Association of ESEA State Program Administrators (NAESPA).