Support for ESSA - not as simple as you think

This week has been identified as the #OTWeekOfAction by the American Occupational Therapy Association.  They are encouraging member actions on a number of policy initiatives; however, as noted in the previous blog post, it is important for occupational therapists to independently assess the nature of these proposals before blindly writing letters of support to Congress.

Individuals may learn that they agree with the positions of the professional association or they may learn that they disagree. 

Today's topic is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which is an important law for pediatric practitioners to be aware of.  The act was signed into law in December 2015 and its purpose is to replace the No Child Left Behind Act.  ESSA has new requirements for accountability and transparency in school operations and includes mandates for low performing schools.  It continues the NCLB testing regime and mandates 95% participation in testing for grades 3-8.  However, only 1% of all students can be given alternative tests (around 10% of all special ed students).  Large new block grants are proposed for a range of new policy initiatives and mandates.

The problem is that much of this is unfunded by the federal government and represents new mandates for local school districts that are already burdened under local property tax caps.  Additionally, there is no 'portability' in funding that would allow the money to 'follow' students into charter or private schools if the parents wish to move their children out of low performing dysfunctional educational programs.

This lack of funding portability is significant because it limits parental choice of methodologies to help their children in low performing districts.  Ironically, this is the precise aim of ESSA - to help those same students.

ESSA introduces us all to a new term: specialized instructional support personnel.  This terms replaces the previous term 'pupil services personnel.  The purpose of this renaming is to ensure that relevant stakeholders are included in school-wide decision making.  I become concerned whenever a new law comes ready-made with an entire 'organization of organizations' to prop it up.  On a practical level, the professional associations are hoping that this will allow their respective interest groups to infiltrate new areas of intervention, such as expanded roles for speech language therapy professionals in literacy initiatives, or expanded roles for occupational therapists in bullying prevention programs. The intention behind these objectives is probably good, but the reality is that there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of all these new initiatives and given the limitations in funding it is unlikely that states can afford the proposals.

The testing mandates are an important issue for many people interested in federal education law.  The new ESSA eliminates 'Adequate Yearly Progress' (AYP) mandates but keeps the testing regime intact.  States are more free to establish their own metrics for progress, but the fact that excessive testing is still required will remain burdensome for many schools. 

Professional associations, like AOTA, ask members to support these kinds of initiatives but responsible civic participation means that we can't just support programs that serve as special interest slush funds.  If there was evidence that all of these new programs were effective then it would be easier to support.  If there was portability of funding so parents could place their children in charter or private schools it would be easier to support.  If our economy was different and if there was more discretionary funding it would be easier to support.

The end result is that good intentions of new federal mandates end up being unfunded and partially funded.  This has a negative impact on practice.  I understand that the intention is to have more money flow into schools so that there are new programs and expanded opportunities for students.  Few people disagree with these noble goals.

However, what happens instead is that the mandates are handed down from the federal government and there is NOT ENOUGH MONEY allocated to fund the programs.  That leaves the states responsible for funding, and they are already cash-strapped.

Cash-strapped states then wander through a dizzying array of federal mandates - some legal, some in regulation, and some only in guidance - and have to decide what precious and sparse funds will be allocated in what directions.  Decisions are made - and in the world of unfunded IDEA mandates the districts have great latitude in how they interpret 'qualification' for service.

So what starts off as a noble idea ends up as an unfunded mandate that siphons money away from existing IDEA programs.  School administrators start to fiddle with their numbers of special education students and implement local policy around eligibility determination to meet budgets.  Even worse, special education students are trimmed from their designations to meet testing targets, or to satisfy RTI percentages.

Perhaps it is not correct form to state openly that these are the end results of new unfunded mandates but it is my lived experience.

Professional associations, including AOTA, would provide a better service to their members if they stopped encouraging people to write Congress for full funding on something that will never happen and instead focus on providing education on unfunded mandates and how they actually impact local schools.  They should also focus on providing members with skills to advocate for students who get removed from special education rolls and how to establish defensible and reasonable eligibility requirements for services that will protect children and families.  Finally, they should educate members on methods to counsel families on home activity programs, options for private therapy, and how to meet needs outside of the educational system given the constricted funding.

So don't be a policy lemming.  Don't advocate for something that won't happen, can't happen, or if it does happen will not be helpful for the people you are intending to help.

Background resources:

 Fact Sheet: Congress acts to fix No Child Left Behind

National Alliance of Specialized Instructional Support Personnel

The Every Student Succeeds Act: An ESSA Overview

The Every Student Succeeds Act: More programs and federal intervention in pre-K and K-12 education

New Details on ESSA Funding for Healthy, Safe, Well-Rounded Students

US Department of Education Every Student Succeeds Act


Scott Harmon said…
Some states have funding portability for children who have an IEP. My state,Arkansas, initiated "The Succeed Scholarship" last year for such students. There needs to be a push for funding portability to allow parents to choose the school the want. We would never tolerate the government telling us which grocery store we have to use, why do we tolerate being told which school we have to use? I say let the free market work in everything including education.

Thank you Chris for once again shedding light on an important issue.
Hi Scott - that is great that Arkansas has that kind of funding portability. We need that badly in all places - particularly to help families have options when they are stuck living in districts with severely under-performing schools.

I understand the complexities and arguments about how these methods can 'pull away' funding from districts that need money but the reality is that maybe those districts need a little competition and that will help to eliminate the stranglehold of mediocrity (and worse than mediocrity, to be honest!).

Education lobbies in my state (NY) are so powerful that it is difficult to imagine a scenario where this kind of portability is likely to happen in the near future.

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