With the federal No Child Left Behind Act now in the rear mirror, the new Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) could bring its own challenges both to New Jersey’s public schools and the state department that oversees them.
A great deal is still unclear about the massive new federal law. But state officials and school advocates are starting to talk about how it could play out for education in the state, in both the short and long term.
The biggest changes will be in the way districts and schools are required to test students and what they then must do with those results.
Annual testing is still required under the new law, but unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, states will have flexibility in looking at other achievement measures. States will also have significantly more authority in setting how and whether they will intervene in low-performing districts.
Meanwhile, old labels from NCLB about “highly qualified” teachers will no longer be used. At least for at least the time being, the state is holding steady on the labels it will place on individual schools until new guidelines are determined.
In a presentation to the State Board of Education last week, state officials said there was still much to decide, but they maintained the state was well-prepared. They said the state’s plan would be ready for next fall, with proposed regulations posted by October or November. The full effect of the law isn’t slated to take effect until fall of 2017.
“This is at minimum an 18-month process we are going through right now,” said Deputy Commissioner Peter Shulman to the board.
The law does place extensive new demands on state departments of education to establish their own criteria for schools, as well as doing the research used in determining those criteria.
And that could prove more challenging for New Jersey, as the state Department of Education has seen its funding slowly drawn down over the last several years.
In his proposed budget for fiscal 2017, Gov. Chris Christie has reduced the state department’s budget by $2.5 million, on top of a $5 million reduction last year.
One expert on federal education policy said he couldn’t speak yet about New Jersey, but said that states will clearly have more responsibility ahead.
“A major consequence of the law — and the pullback on federal accountability in education — is to make the state role in driving education reform and improvement all the more important,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of politics at Drew University. “And there are real concerns about the extent to which states are able and willing to lead this effort.”
Shulman, the deputy commissioner, said in a statement that the department was prepared for the changes, although he acknowledged possible budget constraints ahead.
“Based on everything we’ve done so far, we believe New Jersey is well-situated to implement the major requirements of the law,” said in a statement after the presentation. “Still, we need to be cognizant of the resources we have available and how we utilize those resources.”