Editor's note: This is the first post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity?
At the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law with bipartisan support. Though the logic and mechanics of the policy distinguish it from its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, it is difficult to tell how and whether ESSA will create increased agency for students and their families. Parents’ interactions with policy opportunities depend on their demand for diverse and academically rigorous options, their ability to find and sort through materials on school quality and fit, and the supply of diverse schooling options within and outside of traditional public school districts. Answers to the following questions should help policy observers gauge ESSA’s likelihood of altering student enrollment patterns:
Does ESSA create or encourage new and different school models and approaches (i.e., will ESSA spur school variation within states)?
ESSA grants states considerable leeway in setting standards and goals and designing systems and supports best suited to the needs of their citizens—the federal government’s primary responsibility under ESSA is to support state standards and accountability systems. At this point, we don’t know whether states will take advantage of increased flexibility to innovate or continue to operate much as they have for the past fifteen years. If innovation occurs within districts, a district’s schools may come to look increasingly different from one another (in terms of instructional models, curricula, and leadership), suggesting to parents a new or different range of opportunities.
Though ESSA may encourage differences within and across districts, it will also be important to watch whether and how the policy interfaces with existing public choice provisions—charter laws, open enrollment provisions, and voucher options. Greater diversity within districts may encourage greater use of open enrollment provisions and simultaneously make charters appear less distinctive or necessary. But if ESSA fails to spur innovation or alter outcomes, choice options currently on the table may appear more appealing, and parents and community leaders may demand the expansion of alternative models.
Will parents know enough about school variety, methods, and models to take advantage of differences between schools?
Accountability systems requirement
ESSA’s accountability systems requirement may alter the choice environment—at least from parents’ perspective. ESSA requires states to incorporate at least four indicators into accountability systems. While the menu of options available includes several familiar academic items, states are now required to add an additional indicator of a very different kind, such as student and educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, or school climate and safety. If parents feel that these new and varied indicators help them better weigh options based on the school features they value, they may respond to the new data by making different choices than in the past.
Parent engagement programs and parent knowledge
ESSA’s accountability systems requirement could change the information that parents see, but research on NCLB (a policy that the majority public school parents claimed to know quite well in its twilight years) suggests that a typical parent’s depth of policy knowledge may be insufficient in a complex choice environment. Ten years into NCLB implementation, few Seattle families whose children attended schools identified for improvement were aware of their child’s school’s status—or the options available to them as a result of the school’s precarious academic condition (school choice, supplemental education services, and opportunities to participate in forming a corrective action plan). This suggests that ESSA’s accountability systems requirement is most likely to alter enrollment patterns if another policy provision—parent engagement programs—helps parents make sense of this new information.
Under ESSA, districts must reserve funds to staff training on family engagement, fund statewide family engagement centers, and support collaborative relationships between schools and community-based organizations or businesses successful in engaging disadvantaged families. ESSA explicitly requires districts to reach out to parents and family members “in a language they can understand” and convene “a flexible number of engagement meetings at convenient times for families” (for which the school may provide transportation, child care, or home visits using Title I funds). If parent engagement programs are appropriately staffed and resourced, they might change the game by arming families with the information necessary to navigate a complex (and perhaps increasingly complex, depending on the diversity of schooling models that arise in response to ESSA’s increased flexibility provisions) public choice environment.
Lesley Lavery is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College.