Tom On Point: Red flag on ESSA backsliding

Thomas J. Gentzel

Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) late last year has been the cause of much celebration by those of us who believed the fulcrum in education policymaking was badly in need of a reset. For decades, the federal role has grown, coercing state leaders and local school officials to change their practices in order to be eligible for funding from Washington. In the wake of state budget cuts and the recession of 2008, the need for such financial support assumed added urgency.

What is commonly referred to as “federal overreach” had become a new standard, with directives and requirements added at an increasingly alarming rate. Local school officials became accustomed to paying the piper and doing what was expected in order to qualify for the money. This is not to argue that all federal initiatives were misguided or that none of them had a positive effect. It was the vast extent of the requirements, the capriciousness of many, and the growing trend to impose them without at least pretending to comply with the legal requirement for public comment that changed the landscape of education policy. This was a yin-and-yang exercise—as the federal role grew, the opportunity for states to exercise their constitutional oversight of public education and for local school boards to effectively supervise its delivery diminished.

For those interested in how policy is developed, all this is troubling enough, but the real victim was public perception of public education. When schools are viewed as just another government program—or worse, as one observer noted, as little more than outposts of a federal bureaucracy—the sense of local ownership that has been a hallmark of the American education system is weakened if not lost altogether. Compliance trumps innovation, every time.

All this brings us back to December 2015 when President Obama signed ESSA into law, ushering in not just reauthorization of a federal statute but, far more importantly, a new era with pronounced restoration of state and local decision-making in how schools are operated. This move represented a sea change in the federal role, one embraced by members of Congress of both parties.

That celebration is proving to be short-lived, however. The very overreach that ESSA was designed to counter now is re-emerging, as evidenced by rulemaking that is being promulgated to implement the new law.

NSBA recently sent a detailed letter to the U.S. Department of Education that threw a number of red flags for the agency’s proposed ESSA accountability regulations. We noted that even though the Secretary of Education, as a condition of approving state plans, is prohibited from imposing any requirement that is inconsistent with the law, the draft rules do just that in several places.

In fact, our letter said, the regulations are overly prescriptive and “run afoul of congressional intent to restore governance to state and local education leaders [and they] perpetuate the ‘No Child Left Behind’-like structure of maintaining rigid federal specifications for state accountability systems.” In citing numerous examples, we made the point that, despite an overwhelming, bipartisan effort by the Congress to give state and local officials the discretion they need, the bureaucracy is clawing back its ability to direct what these leaders must do.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the parties that effectively lobbied over many years for a pervasive federal role in education would not simply walk away when ESSA was enacted, but instead are attempting to achieve through regulation what they were unable to win in the law. NSBA is actively challenging these efforts, as should everyone who believes in community ownership of public schools.

Tom Gentzel

Thomas J. Gentzel ( is the Executive Director of NSBA. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA


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