ESEA Rewrite Enacted, Giving States and Districts More Say

By Annie Acosta, Director of Fiscal and Family Support Policy, The Arc

On December 10, President Obama enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  This law replaces the unpopular No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  NCLB was perhaps most disliked for its unrealistic goals and punitive approaches towards schools that failed to reach them.  This resulted in 45 states seeking flexibility (“waivers”) from the laws various requirements in exchange for state developed plans.  Despite its many problems, however, NCLB did include major advances for student with disabilities, and preserving them was The Arc’s top priority in the legislative process.

NCLB reinforced that students with disabilities are general education students first and should be held to the same high expectations as all other students.  To do so, the law required, among other things, that students with disabilities participate in state and district-wide assessments and to have their progress measured and reported. This increased accountability for students with disabilities has resulted in dramatic increases in graduation rates, from 48% in 2001 to 64% in 2013.

What Does The Arc Think About the ESSA?

This new law is very important to us since it governs the general education classroom where most students with disabilities spend most of their instructional time.  While The Arc had advocated for a stronger federal role in the accountability system, we ultimately lent the bill our support as we believe it is stronger than NCLB and the waivers that are in effect today.

ESSA includes our main priority that students with disabilities continue to be included in state accountability systems and have access to the general education curriculum and challenging academic content standards.  Fortunately, it also added a number of key provisions for students with disabilities, such as limiting the number of students who take alternate assessments, requiring that parents be informed of potential consequences of taking such exams, intervening in schools were students with disabilities consistently underperform, and requiring states to explain how they will improve conditions for learning, such as reducing bullying and aversive behavioral interventions.

What Next?

Federal and state regulations will be developed to implement the new law.  It is critical that the I/DD community participate actively throughout this process.  The Arc’s chapter network can be instrumental in ensuring that states act in the best interests of students with I/DD.  The bottom line is there is much work ahead – we must be at the table discussing critical questions such as the design of tests, the number of tests, and what their academic standards ought to be.  By working together, we can help to fulfill the law’s purpose to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive fair, equitable, and high quality education and to close achievement gaps.”