Policymakers warming to ESSA plan as deadline approaches

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in our ongoing series of articles examining Idaho’s effort to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The series will continue into August.

With the clock ticking towards a major deadline, state education leaders say they are becoming more supportive of Idaho’s plan to comply with a federal education law.

State Board of Education members Debbie Critchfield and Linda Clark conducted the second intensive meeting devoted to Every Student Succeeds Act compliance plans on Monday.

Last month, Critchfield scrambled to call the meetings after leaders of two education groups said they had been excluded from drafting the plan and were kept in the dark.

The meetings are occurring as Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and the State Department of Education write, revise, proofread and amend the plan, which remains unfinished. Its unofficial seventh draft is unavailable to the public.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra

Ybarra must turn in Idaho’s plan to the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 18. Before that, Ybarra’s staff must finish the plan and present it to the State Board for a vote Aug. 8-9.

The State Board’s timeline means Ybarra’s staff has about a week to finish the plan.

Critchfield said state staffers have made great progress since she presided over the initial meeting of frustrated education groups on June 26.

“I feel 100 percent better about where we are today than I did a month ago,” Critchfield said. “I was uneasy about accepting a document I had looked at four to six weeks ago because there were so many holes in it, lots of to-be-determineds, things that were not answered, overgeneralizations. I didn’t feel like it was really a plan.”

The ESSA compliance plan is important because it is essentially Idaho’s application for $83 million in federal funding annually. The plan must include an accountability system, a plan for addressing low-performing schools, education goals and plans for implementing nine federal programs.

Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., submitted plans to the feds in the spring, but Idaho is holding out until the final deadline.

Idaho House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden echoes Critchfield’s optimism. But like Critchfield, VanOrden scrambled to help convene a rare summer meeting of the House and Senate education committees last month after lawmakers felt they were left out of the loop and staring down an unflinching deadline.

“I am a lot more comfortable now,” said VanOrden, who also attended Monday’s meeting. “I think they are quite a bit closer to submitting a really good document to the feds — something that has a real good chance of passing.”

Ybarra did not attend Monday’s meeting, nor the June 26 meeting. But Duncan Robb, Ybarra’s chief policy officer, called for several notable changes to the plan Monday.

With other SDE staffers’ backing, Robb called for lowering the minimum student group size that would trigger reporting to the feds. (Idaho Education News highlighted this issue in an article Thursday, before Robb called for changes.)

Under previous versions of the plan, the minimum number of students in a group or subgroup was set at 25, and smaller groups would be excluded. Because Idaho is full of small, rural schools, a 25-student minimum could exclude 16 percent of Idaho high schools from being identified as low-performing schools. These schools could be excluded from an increase in federal funding designed to help low-performing schools get back on track.

Robb called for lowering the number to 20 for all students, and to 10 for student subgroups, ensuring that more schools would be subject to the reporting requirements and eligible for a boost in federal funding.

The change could have a pronounced effect on reporting on smaller student subgroups. Under the state estimate, the number of high schools eligible for targeted support and subject to the federal identification system would more than double when it comes to tracking students with disabilities.

A lower threshold ensures more schools are tracked more closely and fewer students are likely to fall through the cracks.

“There were just too many schools left out when it comes to accountability,” said Robb, emphasizing that feedback in recent weeks led to the proposed change.

Clark, the State Board’s president, supports the change.

“On the basis of presenting a truer picture of our state, given the small schools we have, it is much more reasonable,” Clark said.

Even as support for the plan appears to grow, Critchfield admitted that the looming federal deadline puts the State Board in a tough position. If the State Board rejects the plan in August, there would be almost no time to react before the feds’ Sept. 18 deadline.

“That doesn’t give you any kind of wiggle room to be able to make any kind of adjustments,” Critchfield said.

Have your say

Anyone may review the sixth draft of the ESSA plan online, the most current version available to the public.

State Department of Education officials are accepting feedback and suggestions for the ESSA plan online through July 31.