Speeches & Floor Statements

The Every Student Succeeds Act: States Leading The Way

Posted on September 25, 2018

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will please come to order.

Senator Murray and I will each have an opening statement, and then I will introduce the witnesses.

Then we will hear from the witnesses and senators will each have 5 minutes to ask questions.

Candace Hines, a kindergarten teacher in Memphis, recently wrote in the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “This year, Tennessee schools will begin to implement our state’s new education plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Unlike the previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind, ESSA gives Tennessee more autonomy to design policies to meet the needs of our state’s students. ESSA empowers Tennessee with the responsibility to decide how to close achievement gaps, improve schools and make sure that all our children succeed.”

Reaching the point of fixing No Child Left Behind took seven years of Congressional efforts, 27 hearings, and a three day markup where this Committee considered 57 amendments.

The consensus this Committee reached was:  Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states what to do about that progress.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gave Tennessee, in Candace’s words, “a real opportunity for our state to build on the progress we’ve made and enact change, particularly in traditionally-underserved communities.”

Today, I hope to hear how Nebraska, South Carolina, and Delaware are taking advantage of that opportunity.   

Under ESSA, in order to receive over $18 billion in annual federal funding, states have the chance to design their own State plan that includes setting academic goals for students, measuring schools’ performance, and deciding how to fix failing schools.

In the words of two Memphis teachers, Soya Moore and Jessica Hurtley, “ESSA put issues such as teacher evaluations, student assessments, and school reform directly into the hands of state education departments and school districts… ESSA provides a window of opportunity for teachers to get in on the policy discussion and the law’s implementation planning.”

Today, 49 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have had their plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Last October, this Committee held a hearing to hear from the State education chiefs in three states, Tennessee, Louisiana, and New Mexico, that were among the best at making the most of the new law by designing innovative plans.  

For example, we heard from Tennessee Commissioner Candice McQueen about the state’s development and use of a Ready Graduate indicator that will evaluate students’ readiness for college, career or military service.

And this past spring, students in grades 3-8 and high school took the federally-required tests in reading, mathematics, and science, giving states under these new plans. This gives states new data to see how students are making progress towards the new achievement goals the state has set.

Some states – such as Idaho, North Dakota and Texas – are starting to run this new data through their state-designed accountability systems and have released lists of schools identified for support and improvement.

All states are working to produce these new lists and then will begin to work with local districts to improve those schools.

Today, we will hear specifically from three states who, based upon my review of the plans, have also taken advantage of the flexibility we encouraged under the law to design innovative plans.  

For example, South Carolina is using flexibility provided under ESSA to use some of their Title 1 money to fund programs for high school students to take dual-credit classes or for students to receive extra math or reading help at afterschool programs.

Nebraska’s ESSA plan included a statewide database so teachers can access best practices, share information with each other, and work together.

And Delaware’s accountability system includes a College and Career Preparedness indicator which will measure the percentage of high school students who have successfully taken advanced classes or had technical skills training that will prepare them for success after graduation.

Former North Carolina teacher and Principal Alison Welcher recently wrote, “Ultimately, these plans are just writing on paper. The most important work states will undertake comes during the next phase: implementation… We are at a tipping point. States have an exceptional opportunity to use their authority to set a high bar for those who have the privilege of leading our nation’s schools.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act put states back in the driver’s seat for decisions on how to help their students, and I am eager to see what this new chapter holds for our nation’s students.