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Uncovering Opportunities for States to Advance School Choice through ESSA

• McKenzie Snow

During National School Choice Week, ExcelinEd’s team has been highlighting unique aspects of educational choice policy. Today, Claire Voorhees and McKenzie Snow explore how flexibilities in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) can empower states to use school choice to better serve children.

Check out earlier posts on education savings accountstax-credit scholarshipscharter schools and ways the federal government can support school choice.

Yesterday, we wrote about what a federal initiative supporting school choice might look like—including how Uncle Sam could support the immense success of school choice in the states and how to expand the high-quality options available to students whose education is directly within the purview of the federal government. Some readers may have been thinking, “Wait. Wasn’t the historic Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed into law just over a year ago? Where’s the school choice in that?”

Good question. Congress’s intent in passing ESSA was clear: provide more authority to states and school systems. ExcelinEd is hopeful that states will use this authority to leverage the power of parental choice and provide more high-quality options for children. We’re also optimistic that the new Administration will utilize administrative tools—including the bully pulpit—to support states’ efforts.

Several tenets of ESSA empower states to use school choice to better serve children.

  • Competitive Grants for School Interventions allow states to use federal dollars to push districts to implement aggressive school improvement strategies, including charter conversion and expansion of high-performing charters.
  • The Direct Student Services (DSS) provision empowers states to support services including transportation for public school choice, tutoring and access to courses not otherwise available to students.
  • The Charter Schools Program (CSP), a competitive grant to support the growth of charter schools, is continued with expanded applicant eligibility.

Under ESSA, states must identify schools in need of comprehensive support, which are schools that perform in the state’s bottom 5 percent or have graduation rates below 67 percent. (For example, more than 109,000 students are currently enrolled in New York’s 178 failing schools.) ESSA requires states to withhold 7 percent of their total Title I funding to provide grants to districts with a large number of comprehensive support schools. Unlike No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) School Improvement Grants (SIG)—in which states and districts were limited to four improvement strategies (turnaround, transformation, restart and closure)—under ESSA, states and districts have much more flexibility, and can work together to leverage federal dollars to pursue more innovative, comprehensive improvement strategies.

With SIG, the federal government funneled increasing amounts of money to the same districts that had proved unable to turn around the lowest performing schools.  Not surprisingly, many districts chose to implement the least onerous, least transformative strategies like implementing instructional reform. These strategies tend to be more politically palatable, but have proven less effective in changing outcomes for students stuck in low-performing schools. This explains SIG’s dismal results despite receiving $7 billion in federal funding.

Under ESSA, states have the flexibility to pursue such tepid approaches, or even pass the school improvement funds straight through to low-performing districts as formula funds with few to no strings attached. However, ExcelinEd is hopeful for and ready to support bold state action to use parental choice to help turn around a state’s lowest-performing districts and schools.

For example, states can encourage innovative school interventions by choosing to distribute school improvement funds through competitive grants (which ESSA empowers states to do) that limit eligibility to those districts willing to embrace rigorous, choice-based school improvement strategies. (This could look like closing a low-performing school and reopening it as a charter, or converting a school in to a charter.) States could also use the competitive grant program to encourage the adoption of competency-based or personalized learning, course access or digital learning programs.

ESSA also includes a new provision that allows states the option to reserve 3 percent of Title I funding to support Direct Student Services (DSS). States can use this 3 percent to award competitive grants to districts for a variety of purposes, including supporting online courses, course access, personalized learning and credit recovery programs for at-risk students. States can also allocate DSS funds to districts for the transportation of students attending non-residential, higher-performing public schools who would otherwise be enrolled in schools in need of comprehensive support. Note that, when allocating DSS funds, states must prioritize districts with large numbers of schools in comprehensive support and targeted support.

Lastly, ESSA provides for the continuation of the Charter Schools Program (CSP)—a federal competitive grant program to support the growth of charter schools nationwide—which yesterday we said merited increased funding. Before ESSA, only states could apply to the CSP, but eligible applicants now also include governors, state charter school boards and charter school support organizations. Grant winners must then distribute sub-grants to charter schools in their state to support start-up, expansion and replication costs. Preference is given to grant applicants in states with strong charter laws and policies, strong accountability, facilities support and those with greater per-pupil funding equity for charter schools.

Of course, these opportunities under ESSA cannot succeed in isolation. They must be coupled with additional state-level policy changes, including: removing the artificial limits on charter school growth, fostering strong authorizing and accountability practices, attracting or cultivating high-quality charter management organizations and harnessing the power of opportunity scholarships that can increase access to the state’s high-performing private schools.

We all know that too many children have been languishing in failing schools for too many years. ESSA empowers states with an opportunity to rethink their approach to school turnaround and leverage federal dollars to get those students into a high-quality school as soon as possible.


About the author

Claire Voorhees

Claire is the Director for K-12 Reform at the Foundation.  Previously, Claire worked at HCM Strategists where she provided clients with strategic advice on new approaches to education reform.  Claire was also an instructor at Koç University in Istanbul, teaching a comparative course on education rights and policies in the U.S. and Turkey. Before spending time in Turkey, Claire was an associate at Hogan Lovells law firm and served as an associate director in the White House Domestic Policy Council where she assisted senior staff in shaping the Administration’s education policies.  Claire began her career as a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 43 in the South Bronx, New York.

A native of Washington, D.C., Claire earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a master of science in elementary education from Mercy College, a master of public policy from Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.

About the author

McKenzie Snow @mcksnow

McKenzie Snow is a Policy Analyst in Educational Choice for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Previously, McKenzie worked at the Charles Koch Foundation where she helped guide investments in university research centers. She was a lecturer at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where she was the recipient of a Fulbright grant. As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, she pursued a master’s degree in International Development at Lund University in Sweden. McKenzie earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Kansas State University.