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ESSA and Federal Funding Focus of Education Committee Forum

Education Committee Co-Chairs Rep. Andrew Fleischmann and Senator Gayle Slossberg.

Education Committee Co-Chairs Rep. Andrew Fleischmann and Senator Gayle Slossberg.

While the election of Donald Trump raises many questions about the future of public education, state Department of Education officials remained cautiously optimistic yesterday that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed into law last year will allow Connecticut schools to move in a positive direction.

“This is truly a historic opportunity in public education,” Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell told members of the legislature’s Education Committee at an ESSA forum yesterday.

The State Department of Education (SDE) is in the process of getting input from a variety of stakeholders on how this largest of federal laws that governs public education will be implemented. The Education Committee is the latest group to offer its feedback.

CEA members from around Connecticut gathered at County Forums earlier this fall to offer their own input. CEA compiled all teachers’ comments from the forums and submitted them to the SDE. You can also submit comment to the SDE by taking the department’s ESSA survey by clicking here.

Improving assessment

One of the opportunities ESSA offers that was highlighted during yesterday’s forum is the ability to reduce the role of standardized testing.

Deputy Commissioner of Education Ellen Cohn and Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell.

Deputy Commissioner of Education Ellen Cohn and Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell.

Wentzell explained that ESSA allows up to seven states to apply to take part in an innovative assessment pilot. SDE officials indicated that Connecticut does not plan to go down that path, but said that the department will be closely watching other states that do.

Wentzell said it’s very likely that New Hampshire will apply for an innovative assessment pilot. Under its No Child Left Behind flexibility waiver, New Hampshire has been piloting a program in a small number of school districts that allows those districts to take the state test every other year and do a portfolio-style interim assessment in the off years.

“I believe they’ll be applying to continue that program with the intention to eventually go statewide,” Wentzell said. She added that New Hampshire and any other state that applies for an assessment pilot will need to demonstrate that it has the capacity to implement the innovative program statewide while still meeting federal requirements.

“We’re excited to see some of these innovations,” Wentzell said.

Federal education funding

While Education Committee members reacted positively to many of the areas of increased flexibility granted by ESSA, some expressed concerns about how a Trump administration could change federal education policy.

“There’s been some discussion that under the new administration Title I funds could be diverted,” Education Committee Co-Chair Senator Gayle Slossberg said, referring to the federal funds that go to support schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

“This would be incredibly disturbing to our state and our neediest districts,” Slossberg said.

“You’re raising the big unknown question,” Wenzell said.

“One thing that’s true, even with very dramatic changes in administration, is that the checks and balances of the system are a safe guard.” Wentzell added that most large-scale changes to public education require Congressional approval.

Given that Congress approved ESSA just last year on a bipartisan basis, Wentzell said it seems unlikely that Congress would be willing to make big changes to regulations at this point. She did acknowledge, however, that that wouldn’t preclude Congress from cutting education funding.

Wentzell said that the department would be talking to Connecticut’s Congressional delegation about the importance of federal education dollars for local public schools.

“It would be helpful to hear from you what a loss of federal funding would look like in our districts,” Slossberg told Wentzell. “If you can help us understand that so we can communicate that to our Congressional delegation that would be very helpful.”

The SDE plans to release a draft ESSA implementation plan for public comment in March and submit the plan in June 2017.

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