Letter to AFT leaders on ESSA

To: AFT local leaders
From: AFT President Randi Weingarten
Subject: ESSA Implementation

The Obama administration in November 2016 issued final accountability regulations and other guidance under the Every Student Succeeds Act so that states, districts and schools had the tools and information they needed to successfully implement ESSA. That was the Administration’s job—and the timetable given to them by the bipartisan Congress that passed ESSA. 

The ESSA regulations are not perfect—and when released, the AFT and many affiliates raised concerns—but they provide students important guardrails for equity. These regulations took a full year to create and were crafted with much stakeholder engagement, including input from thousands of educators and parents. And now, the states are deep in the process of developing state plans based on the template created to align with the current ESSA regulations. 

A big question when the current administration took office was how much ESSA progress in states and districts would be disrupted.

Less than a week after Betsy DeVos took office as secretary of education, we got our answer. This letter to state chiefs on ESSA implementation maintains the April and September 2017 due dates for state plan templates, but there are now three options for state submissions:

  • the current template (created by the Obama administration) based on the current regulations; 
  • a yet-to-be-created template that will require only what the law requires (not anything that the regulations clarified or added); or 
  • a template created by the states through the Council of Chief State School Officers (presumably also requiring only what is in the law). 

We find this letter troubling for many reasons. First, it appears that the Department of Education is assuming that the ESSA regulations governing accountability and state plans will be repealed. These regulations have important guardrails for civil rights and equity and for financial accountability. They have not yet been repealed by the Republican Congress, nor do we believe they should be.

Second, saying that new template options are coming, when states and stakeholders have been working with the current template, makes it clear that the administration has little clue of how schools operate and their real timelines. Districts are planning for their next school year right now, and these kind of mixed signals are counterproductive and disruptive.

Third, the ESSA regulations provide states with plenty of flexibility to move away from the rigid No Child Left Behind-era prescriptiveness. But they still provide some accountability for federal funding and for enforcement of the civil rights of our students. As we plan long term to combat proposals like vouchers and private school tax credits that threaten public school funding and stability, it’s essential that the DeVos-led Education Department is exposed in its attempt to dress up any curtailing of financial transparency and accountability as “flexibility.” Federal funds come with public accountability. 

As this plays out, please keep up your advocacy for stakeholder engagement and your active review of the drafts and revised plans your states are releasing.