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Equity-in-Education Law Poses Challenges for States

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A new study highlights some of the challenges states face as they look to meet requirements of a federal law designed to ensure students have equitable opportunities for education in K-12 schools, regardless of race, income, disability or other factors.

“We found great variation in how states are implementing equity-related provisions of their plans to meet the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), depending on how they think about equity, what the concerns are in their state and the resources they have to address and support those concerns,” said the study’s lead author Jennifer B. Ayscue, assistant professor of educational evaluation policy analysis and educational leadership at North Carolina State University.

The Abstract spoke with Ayscue and co-author Lance Fusarelli, Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at NC State, about how states are interpreting the ESSA, which was signed by President Obama in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind.

The Abstract: When and why was this legislation first passed?

Ayscue: We have vast inequities in our educational system in terms of opportunities as well as outcomes for students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as low-income students, multilingual learners and students with disabilities. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was initially passed in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. It’s a piece of civil rights legislation that is really intended to promote equity and equitable educational opportunities for students.

It’s been re-authorized multiple times since then, and was passed most recently as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. The law didn’t go into effect until 2017, and then implementation has been impacted by COVID-19.

Fusarelli: Before the latest version, this act was known as No Child Left Behind. There were people who thought that under No Child Left Behind, the federal government was trying to micromanage and dictate educational policy. There was pushback against that, and it was bipartisan.

When the new law passed, it looked like a big shift in power from the federal government back to the states. In this study, we wanted to explore, if the federal government relaxes control, does that mean that some states will turn back the clock, and be less interested in equity? But it takes a few years typically for it to sink in, and then COVID-19 hit.

The enormity of the pandemic pushed everything, including ESSA, to the side, but there were a lot of equity issues that the pandemic raised – access to broadband, access to meals – that the federal government is still trying to address through funding. 

TA: What are some of the hallmark programs of this legislation?

Ayscue: One piece of this legislation that people might be familiar with is Title I. Schools can be identified for Title I federal funding based on the percentage of students they have who qualify for free or reduced meals. They receive additional funding to support those students.

Fusarelli: States were mandating either end-of-grade or end-of-course tests well before No Child Left Behind, but with that version, the idea of national standards entered the conversation. Now, we still have annual testing for grades three through eight and once in high school, but now states can also add other measures to track, like chronic absenteeism or school climate.

TA: What did you find out about equity in the states you studied?

Ayscue: We started by collecting documents from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but selected four to study closely: North Carolina, Kentucky, Vermont and Oklahoma. We did interviews with education leaders and other people who were instrumental in their state’s ESSA plans. All of our states want to have more equitable opportunities for students, but there are clear limitations to doing so, whether it be people and staffing, money or other issues. States generally felt like they could be doing more.

TA: Did you uncover any problems?

Fusarelli: When we looked around the country, we saw that some states created accountability systems that they submitted to the federal government with separate, “real” accountability systems. The only real threat is the federal government could withhold Title I money if states are not complying with the legislation, and that rarely happens. If you think about it, that’s going to hurt kids the most.

Ayscue: Also, we saw that although states were not allowed to create and track super subgroups, where they put students of different races, or multiple subgroups of students in one group, there were some states that tried to submit their plans with super subgroups anyway. That’s a problem. Certain subgroups of students can fly under the radar, and not be identified, and therefore not receive the support they need. 

TA: You wrote that you expect states to push decision-making power to districts. Why is that, and what would the impact of that be?

Fusarelli: The theory is that the people closest to the problems should know the best way to solve them. The more flexibility that district level leaders have with resources, the better they’d be able to address that.

TA: What did you see for North Carolina?

Fusarellia: In North Carolina, you have the Leandro case – the school funding case that’s been going on for decades. A lot of the equity-based discussion focuses around that case. Before the last election, the state Supreme Court was trying to force the legislature to send a minimum amount of money into K-12 education. There was a lawsuit filed that said the court can’t redirect money; only the state can. And it isn’t clear whether, when the N.C. Supreme Court hears that case again, they’re going to decide the same way.