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New ESEA would pave the way for improvements in Illinois schools

12/04/2015
Earlier this week, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), formerly known as No Child Left Behind and now officially known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The Senate will consider this important legislation next. If it passes, President Obama is expected to sign the measure by the end of this month.
 
While imperfect, ESSA is a long overdue reset of the federal role in education policy and a huge national step forward.
“Nothing is perfect, and ESSA is no exception. But there is a lot to like about this measure,” IFT President Dan Montgomery said. “Overall, it will bring us closer to letting states, local districts, and educators focus on students and their success, and to ending the harmful testing obsession that parents and educators alike have repeatedly rejected because it has drained the joy from teaching and learning. Now, we must use this national momentum to affect more change here in Illinois.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten told Education Week that ESSA is a “paradigm shift.”
"It does two very important things," she said. "It maintains the historic commitment to level the playing field for disadvantaged kids, and it stops the testing insanity, which has reduced schooling to a test score and instead enables states to re-envision accountability systems that are far more about what kids need to know and be able to do and will give educators the latitude to be able to make a difference in kids’ lives."

If it becomes law, ESSA will pave the way for a public education system in Illinois and other states that is more focused on teaching and learning by removing many existing federal obstacles and giving states greater control and flexibility in key areas. Under ESSA:

  • The current targeted Title I funding formula is maintained.
  • States will be provided funds to audit their testing policies to decrease unnecessary tests.
  • Each state will be control its teacher evaluation system. Federal funds will not be tied to federal teacher evaluation requirements.
  • Within parameters, each state will set its own accountability system that does not have to follow a rigid “adequate yearly progress” construct. States will still have to disaggregate results by subgroup.
  • Accountability systems can include non-test measures like working conditions, school climate and safety, and educator engagement.
  • Programs for English language learners are protected.
  • Each state will set its own interventions for struggling schools. The federal government won’t specify sanctions (school closings, teacher firings, forced transfers, etc.) in return for money.
  • Each state will set its own content standards and aligned assessments, and the federal government cannot require the Common Core, or PARCC, or Smarter Balanced tests.
  • Several states will be allowed to develop and implement of a performance assessment system, such as the New York Performance Standards Consortium has done.
  • Collective bargaining protections are expanded.
  • Class-size reduction remains an allowable use of funds, and community schools receive their own.
  • Certification for paraprofessionals is maintained.
  • Accountability and transparency provisions for charter schools are expanded.
  • States are required to look at resources and equity in their school improvement plans.
  • Provisions requiring collaboration with teachers and paraprofessionals on school improvement and professional development programs are strengthened.

ESSA also sends a clear signal to states that the policies of No Child Left Behind, waivers, and Race to the Top should be abandoned, not replicated. By maintaining funding for the students who need it most, ESSA discourages state support for private school vouchers, portability, and other divisive policies. And by requiring transparency and accountability for charter schools, it suggests that these unproven policies should not be pursued.

What would this mean here in Illinois? Educators, school districts, and students in our state won’t feel the impact of ESSA overnight. Many onerous, prescriptive requirements that resulted from No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the ESEA waiver process will be eliminated if ESSA passes, but state laws passed to comply with the previous federal requirements would remain.

This is notably true in the area of teacher evaluations, which are required to be tied to student growth measures under Illinois’ PERA (Performance Evaluation Reform Act) law. Changes in state law will be required to fully realize the greater flexibility in accountability systems provided if ESSA passes.
 
But by leveling the playing field and removing obstacles tied to federal funding, ESSA would provide Illinois and our union the freedom and opportunity to explore much-needed legislative initiatives that allow local flexibility, promote shared accountability, and are sensitive to teacher, student, and district needs.   
 
Even if ESSA becomes law, there will be much work to be done in Illinois to fully empower our members to meet students’ needs and protect the teaching profession. The IFT is prepared to do that work during the upcoming session of the Illinois General Assembly. Our union will remain vigilant and member-driven in our efforts to introduce and advocate for the changes needed to benefit educators, students, and communities.


Read more about the provisions of ESSA in this Education Week article.

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