Back-to-School Update: ESSA, Education Policy, and Funding

Monday, August 29, 2016 -- Sean McDonough

As we begin the 2016–17 school year, it’s already obvious to educators that when it comes to education policy and funding, the game has changed. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last December guaranteed that significant power is being handed from the federal government back to individual states to determine curriculum, assessment guidelines, and control over funding. Since then, everyone involved in education has eagerly awaited details regarding just what that transition will actually look like. While the biggest changes related to state regulations and procedures (and additional funding increases) are still to come, we wanted to offer some insight into the changes that are taking place and what educators should expect to watch for in the new school year.

1. Think of 2016–17 as the ESSA “transition time”

ESSA is the law of the land. The transition process to full implementation of the law is in place this year. The law has been approved, and big changes are coming, but most have not yet arrived. Now, states need to identify what conditions will be acceptable to meet the law. It may not be ideal, but for this year, educators must come to terms with a fair amount of uncertainty. States are still developing and updating new accountability systems, and most federal funding will continue to be distributed according to the guidelines established by ESSA’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Expect to see the meaningful changes put in to place for the start of the 2017–18 school year.

In the meantime, schools and districts must remain cognizant of guidelines in place through existing state laws and requirements. Some state education agencies have developed resources to help stakeholders understand what has and has not changed for this school year, such as this chart from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Check your state education agency’s website for similar resources specific to your state.

2. Be proactive about participating in local stakeholder engagement efforts

ESSA requires that states develop and submit a state plan to the U.S. Department of Education. Many state education agencies are conducting workgroups with various stakeholders to ensure implementation of the law. There are no formal guidelines for what these efforts should look like, and different states are pursuing a various strategies, including grassroots sessions at the local level, and official state committees. Regardless of the format, these groups exist for the purpose of collecting direct feedback from educators, parents, community organizations, and other stakeholders to make sure that accountability systems address their needs and challenges. 

Proactively reach out to these groups in your area, and share with them what has and has not worked in your school or classroom. Keep in mind that, for the first time, ESSA includes specific provisions to support blended learning, so these groups are particularly interested in hearing about successful technology initiatives.

3. Take advantage of E-rate cost savings

Although not specifically related to ESSA, the Federal Communications Commission shifted and increased funding for the FCC’s E-rate program to better support broadband and Wi-Fi access in schools. This program is particularly targeted at closing the digital divide for high-poverty and rural students, but all schools can benefit from the additional funding. With that in mind, it’s important to be aware of just what your school or district’s E-rate cost savings are and ensure that you are the making the most of those extra dollars. Consider leveraging new devices, expanding your use of online tools, or offering additional opportunities for professional development.

The 2016–17 school year is sure to bring plenty of developments when it comes to education policy, and like you, we’re eager to see what decisions are made at the federal and state levels. We’ll be closely following the latest news on ESSA throughout the school year and will be posting regular updates here on our blog—be sure to check back soon!

Need a refresher on the provisions of ESSA and the decisions that have already been made? Check out this blog post for additional updates and insights!