Ybarra stands firm on ESSA plan as Board braces for federal pushback

POCATELLO — State  superintendent Sherri Ybarra on Wednesday vowed to push back against any federal effort to change Idaho’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

At the same time, other State Board of Education members developed a contingency plan in case the feds reject a portion of Idaho’s plan or demand changes.

“Unless it breaks the law, I will not support any changes to the plan, especially if this is what the stakeholders asked for,” Ybarra said. “We’ve spent a lot of time, and unless it breaks the law I will come back and let them know you said this has to be done the Idaho way.”

Ybarra made her comment during an ESSA briefing and discussion period with fellow State Board members. The State Board took no action Wednesday, but is expected to vote on the plan Thursday, when its meeting continues on Idaho State University’s campus.

Linda Clark

Idaho faces a Sept. 18 deadline to submit its plan to the feds. State officials have been drafting the plan for more than a year.

State Board President Linda Clark and member Debbie Critchfield warned that the feds might, in fact, send the plan back or demand changes because Idaho’s proposed accountability system does not utilize a single summative rating or index.

“It appears to us, based on all the input we’ve had, the feds would prefer a single rating,” Clark said. “However, our stakeholders spoke very loudly about wanting multiple measures and the board approved them.”

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As part of Idaho’s plan, state education leaders plan to unveil an online “data dashboard” and report card that presents multiple measures of school quality and academic achievement.

Debbie Critchfield

Although Clark and Critchfield said the data dashboard actually offers more transparency, they said a dashboard alone might not be enough to pass federal muster.

To prepare for the possibility of the feds rejecting Idaho’s plan, Critchfield floated the idea of working to develop an index to rate schools on a 100-point scale — a tactic that Massachusetts incorporated into its plan.

The ESSA compliance plan is important, because it represents Idaho’s application to receive and spend about $83 million in federal funding annually. The plan includes a school accountability system, which Idaho has been without since 2014. Finally, the plan describes how educators and policy leaders will implement nine federal education programs, many of which affect students with disadvantages or direct teacher professional development.

The ESSA plan has been one of the hottest education topics this summer. In June, Idaho Education Association and Idaho School Boards Association leaders complained that they were excluded from developing the plan, which they said threatened buy-in. Weeks later, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, also said he and several other legislators weren’t up to speed on the plan as the federal deadline loomed.

In response, Critchfield, board staff and several State Department of Education members quickly organized a series of in-depth meetings for educators and policymakers.

During those meetings, educators and legislators picked apart sections of the plan that address the state’s long-term goals for education and the parameters for data collection and student sample sizes — prompting changes in the final draft that Ybarra and her staff unveiled in July.

The ESSA plan must clear three key hurdles. First, is Thursday’s expected State Board vote. From there, the plan goes to Gov. Butch Otter for a 30-day review, although SDE officials said he is not required to sign it. Finally, Ybarra and Clark must sign off and send the plan to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education for consideration.

Clark and Critchfield said the feds will have up to 120 days to review Idaho’s plan, but may give states as little as 15 days to respond to any demands for changes.

“What we’re now waiting to see is whether the feds will find that acceptable or they will require something (different),” Clark said.

Vailas announces retirement

In other news Wednesday, Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas announced his retirement amid pressure from ISU’s boosters. State Board members Richard Westerberg and Emma Atchley will serve on a search committee charged with recruiting Vailas’ successor. For more on this story, read Kevin Richert’s blog.

Check back with Idaho Education News Thursday night for results of the ESSA vote. 

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