ESSA process reveals pitfalls and promise

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More than 30 states submitted their plans for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act to the Education Department Sept. 18, an important milestone that reveals both potential and challenges when it comes to rolling out ESSA, the latest version of the nation's biggest preK-12 education law.

One ingredient conspicuously absent from the process has been clear: constructive guidance from Betsy DeVos' Education Department, many education groups warn, and the federal agency simply must do a better job if ESSA is to advance the work needed to achieve what AFT President Randi Weingarten calls "the four pillars for successful schools."

Key lawmakers also have voiced concern. On the day scores of states submitted their plans, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) sent a letter to DeVos voicing "concern about inconsistent feedback and a lack of enforcement of the law's equity-focused provisions." The key lawmakers urged DeVos to make improvements in the department's handling of implementation— and to be faithful to the statutory underpinnings created by Congress— as plans continue to be filed and reviewed.

Despite the obstacles, many states have made powerful inroads when it comes to moving beyond the No Child Left Behind chapter that ESSA is designed to replace—a testament to the dogged work of many AFT affiliates in keeping the voice of the profession and the community in the process. Affiliates and members in New York state, for example, have been a key to seizing the opportunity ESSA provides to curb excessive testing and to return exams to their rightful, constructive use in classrooms. Ohio members and affiliates generated a groundswell for public input that prompted the state to extend its deadline for submitting plans.

This active AFT engagement—combined with a new willingness by the DeVos Education Department to do its job—will be vital to securing strong ESSA plans that truly break from NCLB abuses.

[Staff reports]