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ESSA: Va. State Board Approves Education Plan Amid Advocates’ Concerns

The Virginia Board of Education is in the final stages of approving a new consolidated plan for the state’s students under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law was approved by the Obama Administration in 2015 and takes effect this year.

Currently, all U.S. states, including Virginia, are operating under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which was passed in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration.

ESSA is supposed to ensure that all students are taught to high academic standards that prepare them to succeed as adults, including those enrolled in low performing schools.

Each state was charged to develop a plan under ESSA and to submit it to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) by September 18.

Phillip Hawkins, Jr. is President of the Education Association of Norfolk, a local affiliate of the Virginia Education Association (VEA).

The 20-year Early Childhood Educator from Norfolk City Schools, serves on the VEA State ESSA Implementation Team and the Virginia School Readiness Committee created and governed by the Virginia Department of Education.

Hawkins said ESSA will help all public schools, especially the community schools, to provide the needed systems of support and resources that all students need. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has not accomplished that, he said.

“NCLB heavily relied on the federal government to make decisions, create policy, and set mandates for excessive standardized assessments as the only measurement of student achievement, without funding. ESSA will allow local school divisions and their staff to bring the focus back to student learning, and create an accountability system that will be equitable.”

In Virginia, the Virginia State Board approved the draft of its plan during its July 27 meeting in Richmond.

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A coalition of 16 civil rights and educational advocacy groups has questioned if enough public input has been generated to allow parents, officials and other “stakeholders” to express their views about the plan.

It had urged the panel to wait until late August to vote, allowing time for more comments from citizens about the plan.

The board has held five hearings around the state for public input and comment: in Northern Virginia (Fairfax County); Southwest Virginia (Wytheville); the Valley (Harrisonburg); and most recently in Hampton Roads on Wednesday night (August 9) at Old Donation School in Virginia Beach. The final hearing is set for August 23 in South Hill.

In addition, the State Board has been accepting public comments during its monthly business meetings in Richmond, according to a VDOE spokesperson.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) posted a letter on its website on July 21 that it was joining the “coalition of education and civil rights organizations to urge the Virginia Board of Education (Board) to postpone its final approval of its ESSA plan.”

“While this plan will affect hundreds of thousands of students and educators across Virginia, the Board did not leave sufficient time for public review nor meaningful opportunities for public input ever since the draft’s release,” the letter said. “It is imperative that the Board maximize public and stakeholder engagement before finalizing the plan to ensure that the plan adequately addresses the needs of all children in our public schools.”

The July 21 letter called for the board to “immediately engage stakeholders to review and offer input on the draft plan through an online survey” and “to hold public hearings in central Virginia to discuss the draft plan prior to the August final approval vote.”

“Make ESSA the focal point of all remaining public hearings and provide education to the public on the details of the plan, including a public Webinar,” the ACLU urged in its letter.

According to Charles Pyle, the Director of Communications Virginia Department of Education, if the board sees any opposing views or factors which pose a “threat” to the credibility of the plan the board approved on July 27, it will meet to address them before the submission deadline of September 18.

The board does not hold meetings in August.

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Four states have already submitted their plans and the ACLU letter noted that Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut and Nevada have been cited by the Department of Education for lack of specificity in long term goals for student achievements and English Language Proficiency (ELP). The Virginia coalition said the Virginia plan also is lacking in these and other areas.

In an article “Education Policy Experts Disappointed By Some ESSA State Plans” which appeared recently on the National Newspapers Publisher’s Association (NNPA) newswire, Erika McConduit, president of the Urban League of Louisiana, said the Louisiana plan failed to take into account the academic performances of historically disadvantaged students.

“There is also a lack of clarity on how many poor performing schools would be identified as needing improvement, or what actions would be required to show they have improved, “ McConduit said. “While we do believe that states obviously have a vested interest in wanting to change the outcomes of students, this is cause for concern when it comes to accountability.”

ESSA was written to provide increased flexibility to states in developing and implementing, within federal guidelines, long-term goals and interim measures of progress to identify schools for support and improvement.

Pyle said ESSA is less restrictive in addressing failing schools. Under No Child Left Behind, vulnerable schools have been removed from accreditation or placed on probation until state and federal achievement levels are elevated.

These designations have been stigmatizing, according to school division officials and public education advocates, especially to those schools which had large or mainly minority populations in urban centers.

ESSA was written by lawmakers to lend much needed support to those students who perform marginally on assessment tests and to help them improve toward achieving academic goals. Vulnerable or failing schools are supposed to receive additional resources and time to help their students improve on the standardized tests administered in reading and math especially.

Pyle said, “For students, the big news under the proposed standards is a reduction in the number of SOL tests students would need to pass to earn a diploma: from nine to five for an Advanced Diploma, and from six to five for a Standard Diploma.

“Once a student earns a verified credit in a subject, he or she would not have to take additional tests in the content area. For example, if a student passes his Algebra I course and the corresponding SOL test, he does not have to take any more SOL tests in math,” Pyle said.

For more information, here is a link to the ESSA plan as approved by the Virginia Board of Education last month: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/federal_programs/esea/essa/essa-state-plan.pdf.

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The plan must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by September 18.

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter

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