The 2020 Presidential Election, Waivers, and ESSA Reauthorization

If you’d asked me, “Which education issues are most at stake in the 2020 presidential election?” a year ago, I would have said with great certainty, higher education funding and school safety. The cost of higher education was the education issue on every candidate’s lips during the Democratic primary season. Keeping kids safe from guns and over-policing at school followed closely behind. 

Would the election impact accountability and assessment provisions under the Every Student Succeeds Act? One year ago, I would not have foreseen an ESSA reauthorization conversation, for a few reasons:

  • 2020 may be the year that ESSA’s authorization expires, but so long as Congress continues to appropriate funds to the law, its requirements stand. Everyone I’ve asked the question of does not think ESSA reauthorization is probable in the foreseeable future.
  • There is no advocacy push to reauthorize ESSA. States – the law’s most immediate constituency– are largely able to pursue their innovation agendas without seeking additional flexibility.
  • Any conversations I’ve seen about tweaking assessment or accountability requirements in ESSA were mostly limited to addressing pilot programs.

Enter COVID-19; in March, the U.S. Department of Education suspended the requirement for states to assess every student and to identify schools for improvement. This action was generally accepted as necessary, even amongst accountability hawks, given the sudden closure of schools last spring and the lack of widespread remote testing options. The outlook for regulatory flexibility for Spring 2021 still isn’t clear, but appears on track to a return to status quo. In a letter to state chiefs, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told states not to expect waivers from annual testing this year

But could the outcome of next week’s presidential election change that? The Trump campaign’s push to continue business as usual with in-person schooling, combined with the aforementioned DeVos letter seems to point away from waivers.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign is noncommittal on a waiver, with the transition team placing a priority on controlling the pandemic before making any decisions about Federal accountability and assessment requirements. With a Biden win, higher education and school safety– and of course, Coronavirus pandemic recovery– will move to the forefront. Will an expedited ESSA reauthorization be part of that conversation, too, or we will continue on with waivers for the foreseeable future?

Creative Commons License

The 2020 Presidential Election, Waivers, and ESSA Reauthorization by Maria Worthen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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