Florida education commissioner chimes in on federal Every Student Succeeds Act

Published Aug. 5, 2016

Days after closing the window on public input for Florida's effort to implement new federal education accountability rules, state education commissioner Pam Stewart has sent her own views to U.S. Education Secretary John King.

In her seven-page letter, Stewart touts Florida's existing system, and reminds the secretary that the federal government cannot force states to adopt new rules beyond the scope of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which intended to give states more control over the matter.

"Regulations can only be issued by the Secretary 'to the extent that such regulations are necessary to ensure there is compliance with the specific requirements and assurances required by this Act,'" she wrote.

Stewart proceeds to detail her questions and concerns about key areas in the ESSA law and guidelines. Her move comes as the state reviews the comments it receives and prepares to draft its own plan, taking into account the newly adopted act. Among her positions, Stewart:

- Notes that the timeline for implementing new accountability measures might be too compressed.

"ESSA requires that the revised accountability requirements take effect beginning with the 2017-18 school year," she writes. "The proposed regulation requires use of 2016-17 data to inform an ESSA-compliant accountability system for the 2017-18 school year. Section 200.19(d) requires that the 2016-17 data measure a school's performance on the indicators which then must be used to select schools for Comprehensive Support and Improvement. State plans describing the accountability systems are not due to the United States Department of Education (USED) until either March 6th or July 3rd of 2017. USED then has 120 days to review plans, with additional time provided for revision and resubmission, if needed. The states would not use the accountability systems described in their plans until the plan is approved by USED. Accordingly, it would not be possible to calculate accountability ratings to identify schools for the 2017-18 school year."

- Questions the proposal for differentiating, or grading, all public schools annually.

"In Florida, differentiating each indicator by at least three distinct levels would actually reduce transparency to the public and make student performance data more difficult to understand. Florida's indicators are all based on percentages; for example, the percentage of students meeting English Language Arts proficiency standards. Translating those percentages into levels would disguise the meaning of the indicator. Furthermore, s. 200.18(d)(3) exceeds its authority by adding a requirement that based on all students' and each subgroup's performance, a school performing in the lowest performance level on any of the indicators must receive a different summative rating than a school performing in the highest performance level on all indicators."

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- Challenges the recommendation that school report cards be presented in a language parents can understand.

"For example, s. 200.21(b) requires parental notice of schools identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement, which must be, to the extent practicable, written in a language that parents can understand or, if not practicable, orally translate to a parent with limited English proficiency. In addition, upon request by a parent or guardian with a disability, the LEA must provide the notice 'in an alternative format accessible to that parent.' (Would this include Braille, audio, sign language?) Florida believes that the requirements in ESSA are sufficient without the requirements added in the rule which may not be feasible to implement because there are over 300 languages spoken by Florida parents."

Read Stewart's entire letter here.

Tallahassee-based education consultant Cheryl Sattler, who specializes in federal programs, said Stewart raises some important points, such as those about the time frames. More broadly, though, she suggested that the letter was political.

"Overall ... this letter is basically one statement: 'Florida already has a great system, knows what it's doing, and shouldn't have to change,'" Sattler said via email. "I wouldn't look for resolution until winter."

The Florida Department of Education expects to publish its draft ESSA plan in early 2017.