For national organizations, this will be far more difficult than it was under No Child Left Behind, and harder even than it was with the ESEA flexibility waivers. Direct lobbying and advocacy with this Department of Education, while important, may not be all that productive since Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos does not appear committed to strong federal oversight.
As such, national researchers may want to focus their efforts on analyzing the success of implementation. They can check to see how faithfully states execute their plans. And finally, as the data permits, they can evaluate if states are raising achievement and increasing equity. Altogether, these efforts may not force states to do better, but they nevertheless can help to highlight successes and failures.
Because ESSA severely restricts the federal role in education, change needs to come from the ground up. The good news is that there is a tremendous amount of local organizing and advocacy around education and equity in states and localities all across the country.
This is where philanthropy comes in. Funders should shift some of their focus to local investments to build capacity, provide resources and support communications. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent strategy shift to fund local networks of public schools and entice them to share best practices is a step in the right direction in this new education era.
In short, national and philanthropic organizations can play an important role amplifying and supporting local advocacy and action around improving education for all students, and particularly for historically marginalized populations.
ESSA’s authorization period is short—Congress is set to reauthorize the law in 2021. That means, in just three years there will be an opportunity to reinstate a strong federal role to right the wrongs of ESSA and require states to build systems focused on providing high-quality education, particularly to underserved students.
To be prepared for reauthorization, based on lessons learned from the ESSA era, advocates and policymakers must develop a plan for what a strong federal accountability framework centered on advancing equity should look like.
Kaitlin Pennington is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in the policy and thought leadership practice area. Prior to joining Bellwether in 2015, Kaitlin worked as a policy analyst on the education policy team at the Center for American Progress where she focused on human capital issues, specifically around teacher and principal effectiveness. Before that, Kaitlin was a policy analyst at the education policy nonprofit Colorado Succeeds and an urban leaders policy fellow in the Office of Colorado Sen. Mike Johnston. As a Teach For America corps member, Kaitlin taught middle school English and language arts in Washington, D.C. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kaitlin holds a master’s degree from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University.
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