At approximately 1:30 PM, on February 23rd, the Governor’s Advisory Council on ESSA wrapped up the task set forth in the executive order issued by Governor John Bel Edwards. All that is left is a final draft of recommendations that will be assembled and delivered to the governor by his K-12 Advisor, Donald Songy.
The final meeting was a bit more lengthy than the previous meetings. At times, it got bogged down in the details of the recommendations; mostly because of the presentation made by Stephen Parker of the National Governor’s Association (NGA). Parker is a Washington DC lobbyist for the NGA and played an integral part in the lengthy creation of the very complex Every Student Succeeds Act.
In his opening remarks, Parker mentioned working hand in hand with another organization, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). If you’ve been fighting education reform, like I have, then you probably hold contempt for these two organizations. They have been leading the efforts to implement Common Core State Standards, charter school expansion and other things. What he said next caught me off guard. He stated that the NGA held Gov. Edwards in high regard because he is one of only three governors that has embraced a commitment to fully explore the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and one of only two who created a task force by executive order to study it. He went on to say this is exactly what NGA and CCSSO pushed for when working with Senator Lamar Alexander and the HELP committee during the creation of the ESSA bill. Quoting Alexander, he said, “It is our hope that states will embrace the local authority that we have given them and not simply tweak their current plan, but create a new plan with input from everyone it serves.” This is a direct contradiction to what has been happening in Louisiana. In fact, Gov. Edwards has been criticized by the Advocate and various bloggers for getting involved, at all, when the superintendent of education has an accountability commission in place, and the basic framework already done. Superintendent White actually stated in the beginning that we have a good plan. We just need to tweak it to fit the new law. While Governor Edwards is a member of the NGA, and Supt. White is a member of another organization called Chiefs for Change (CFC). Holly Boffy, BESE member for District 7, is employed by CCSSO. It is interesting how the intent at the national level wasn’t expressed by Supt. White at the state level, and there was no intervention, at any time, by Boffy.
In reviewing and finalizing the initial recommendations that the council intends to submit to the governor, many questions came up as a result of comments made by Parker. Among the topics discussed were reducing testing; whether to submit the plan in April, or September; and whether, or not, to allow the state to utilize an optional 3% of Title 1 funds set aside to target schools with the most need; in addition to the mandated 7% set aside.
- Reduced Testing: In general, we know that statewide standardized tests are a burden. Students don’t like them. Parents don’t like them. Teachers don’t like them. But education reformers love them. Polls have indicate that an overwhelming 80% of parents either don’t look at the scores, or don’t trust the scores and feel that formative assessments in the classroom provide for better information. Among parents of children with special needs, the number is even higher. When elected, Gov. Edwards made it a priority to reduce the amount of time spent on testing; this includes independent testing administered at the district level in preparation for the statewide assessment. Some districts test three times in a year to see if the students are prepared. When do they teach? In his first months in office, Gov. Edwards asked Supt. White to address this, and he obliged by consolidating the number of days. This, in effect, reduced the number of days used for testing, but did not reduce the amount of testing. There seems to be a consensus among the accountability commission, the advisory council, and various educational organizations, that testing should be reduced. Their differences lie in whether this should be in the amount of time, or in the subjects tested. ESSA does not require testing every year in Science and Social Studies; however, Louisiana law does. Teachers of these subjects feel that if testing is eliminated, they become less important and may receive less commitment when a school prioritizes instruction for assessments. That is a distinct possibility. We’ve seen it happen to Art, Music, PE, Business Math, Foreign Language, etc. What we have to remember is that not testing a subject does not indicate a lack of importance. If it is treated as such, someone has the wrong priorities. I’m not sure how this will turn out, but the council is recommending fewer subjects.
- ESSA Plan Submission: During the last months of the Obama administration, Secretary of Education, John King, was feverishly trying to get final regulations in place for the implementation of ESSA. In those regs, the original timeline was that the State ESSA plan be submitted by April 3rd, so that whatever negotiations need to take place between the state and the USDOE can happen in time for implementation of the plan for the 17-18 school year. Later, that submission date was extended to mid-September. The advisory council has supported a later submission date from the beginning; however, Supt. White insists that it be submitted in April. Members of the council agree that even if the plan is submitted in September, after the school year begins, we already have an accountability plan in place that will remain until the ESSA plan is approved. They stress the need to take the time to get it right, and roll it out properly, to avoid a major push back similar to the roll out of Common Core. Some groups see this as stalling. The council also expressed that while LDOE held ESSA meetings and conducted Q&A sessions, it was a false representation of stakeholder participation. The opportunity for real input and incorporating it into the plan has been totally absent, and in fact, exalted in the condemnation of Gov. Edwards for establishing a council. Mr. Parker expressed that the council certainly has reason for concerns and strongly suggested that the governor take executive action to ensure proper vetting of the plan by all stakeholders. The advisory council is recommending to the governor that he take the necessary action to delay submission and to guarantee stakeholder participation. In addition, they are requesting that he either amend his original executive order, or create a new one, to keep the council in place and included as participants in the submission of the plan and the subsequent negotiations. The negotiation process typically has no transparency. This would guarantee transparency.
- 3% Title 1 Set Aside: This topic drew the most heated discussion, in part, because Assistant Superintendent, Ken Bradford was invited to explain White’s intent to use the optional 3% and to field questions from the council. Bradford, who was chosen by Jeb Bush’s organization Excellence in Education as Education Reformer of the Week in January 2014, at times appeared hostile toward members of the advisory council. The 3% set aside is intended to be a mechanism to redirect Title 1 money to schools with the highest need for intensive support. Every district would be required to forego 3% of their Title 1 funds; in addition to the 7% they will already be losing. The state would award the money in block grants to the schools performing in the lowest 5% based on the best plans for improvement. There are several problems with this concept. 1.) Title 1 funds are a finite set of dollars. Many districts are already using this money for innovative programs designed to improve their lowest schools. Some of the programs may suffer with the loss of the 7%. The additional 3% makes that reality even greater. 2.) If a district is successfully supporting a school with a program, and they can’t sustain the program without that 3%, they will likely drop to the lowest 5% while the other low performer gets their funding. The end result will be funding shifting from school to school while performance of the schools in the bottom tier will go up and down like a seesaw. The council is opposed to White retaining the 3% at the state level and believes that districts should be allow to redirect those funds in the manner they see fit. It was suggested by one council member that this is a much more favorable approach compared to the superintendent’s plan to allow out of state organizations offer up their “turnaround plans” and profit from the Title 1 program. White already has this plan in motion. In addition, while at the state level, there would be a lack of transparency in the use of the funds, and there is a general lack of trust that the funds will be used accordingly.
Public attendance of the final meeting was much higher than previous meetings. I believe every chair in the room was filled. There were a number of public comments made from people who are passionate about their cause. Some agreed with the council’s positions; others, did not. Some agreed or disagreed depending on the topic at hand. Among those was the Louisiana Teacher of the Year, Joni Smith. I had the pleasure of sitting next to her. If you haven’t met her, or heard her speak, you are missing out. It is easy to see why she was selected. She is exuberant. She is an excellent speaker, and she is genuinely excited about teaching. Smith was in support of keeping testing for Social Studies and Science, because she is, of course, a middle school Science teacher. She also spoke in favor of delaying the submission of the ESSA plan until September with emphasis on getting it right.
This summarizes the outcome of the Governor’s Advisory Council. There are other topics of discussion and small details. All of which are important, but would be better served if discussed when they come up over the next few months. I look forward to the outcome and will try to stay engaged along the way. It might be hard to do with the regular session fast approaching.