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New Education Law Reduces Federal Reach

President Obama signed into law on Dec. 10 a replacement for the unpopular and ultimately unworkable law that was known as No Child Left Behind, putting more control in the hands of states and school districts and preserving the local governance authority of local school boards.

The vote was 85 to 12 in the Senate and 359 to 64 in the House.

Now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the law updates what was officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which essentially defines the federal government’s role in K-12 public education.

The ESSA goes in a distinctly different direction than NCLB, which set achievement goals for all schools and labeled them as “failing” when they didn’t make the required progress toward 100 percent proficiency for all students in reading and math.

The new ESSA limits the federal government’s role and pushes decision-making around accountability to the state and individual school districts.

Standardized state tests are still part of the picture, but other factors will be considered, like school-climate and teacher and student engagement.

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, but get wide discretion in setting goals and determining how to hold schools and districts accountable.

States would still have to identify their lowest 5 percent performing schools, and identify schools where subgroups, including children in poverty, are underachieving. The difference is the federal government no longer would prescribe interventions in those schools. That would be a state and local decision.

The U.S. DOE also would no longer have a say in how teacher evaluations are to be conducted.

While many applauded the diminished role of the federal government, including the nation’s teachers’ unions, some raised a concern that inequities based on location would proliferate.

“The real question is what authority is left to the federal government to intervene should the states in one way or another fall short of what the hopes are?” David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, told the New York Times. “We all are concerned that we not go to a place where based on where you happen to be born or which state you’re in, you face very, very increasingly different opportunities.”

A primer published by Education Week just days before the House vote outlined key initiatives in the proposal and the difference between current law and the old ESEA and NCLB waivers.

Key Elements

  • States would still have to submit accountability plans for approval to the U.S. DOE. These new ESSA plans would start in the 2017-18 school year.
  • States would set the rules around teacher evaluations. Maine’s system is in state statute and currently is in its pilot year.
  • Gone is the now outdated requirement to get all students to proficiency by a date certain – a system that created so called “failing schools” under NCLB.
  • States can pick their own goals around proficiency and graduation rates, but must set an expectation that groups furthest behind close gaps.
  • States have to identify and intervene in the bottom 5 percent of performers, and these schools have to be identified at least once every three years.
  • States have to identify and intervene in high schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less.
  • States must identify schools where subgroup students are struggling. Subgroups include English learners, students in special education, racial minorities and those in poverty.

Accountability Systems

  • For elementary and middle schools there must be at least four indicators.
  • That includes three academic indicators: proficiency on state tests, English-language proficiency, plus some other academic factor like growth on state tests.
  • New is the requirement that at least one non-traditional indicator must be included like student engagement, educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, post-secondary readiness, school climate/safety, or others proposed by the state.
  • For high schools the indicators are proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, graduation rates, plus at least one other indicator that focuses a little more on whether students have the opportunity to learn, or are ready for post-secondary work.


  • For the bottom 5 percent of schools and for high schools with high dropout rates, districts will work with school staff to come up with an evidenced-based turnaround plan and the state will monitor the effort. If schools continue to founder for no more than four years the state can step in with its own plan.
  • For schools where subgroup students are struggling, the schools have to come up with an evidenced-based plan. If problems persist, the district steps in. For chronic underperformance within subgroups – defined as scores as bad as the bottom 5-percent schools – the district and state have to step in.

Funding Resources

The School Improvement Grant program, which is funded currently at around $500 million nationwide, has been consolidated into the bigger Title I pot, which helps districts educate students in poverty. But states would be able to set aside up to 7 percent of all their Title I funds for school turnarounds, up from 4 percent in current law.


States must adopt “challenging” academic standards, just like under NCLB. That could be the Common Core State Standards, but it doesn’t have to be. And, the U.S. Secretary of Education is expressly prohibited from forcing or even encouraging states to pick a particular set of standards. Maine already has adopted Common Core and enshrined it in statute in 2011.

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