Wonkathon 2016

Last week, we received eleven responses to Fordham’s third annual Wonkathon prompt on ESSA and parental choice:

Many observers credit No Child Left Behind with contributing to the significant expansion of parental choice in American education over the past fifteen years. It wasn't necessarily the school choice provisions contained in the law (which were limited and poorly designed), but what its passage did to shine a spotlight on school failure and create a sense that better schools were desperately needed.

Likewise, some in the school choice movement are disappointed that the new Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't do much legislatively to promote choice. But are they overlooking the law's potential? What do you think are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity?

This year’s posts offered a wide range of great ideas from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. The competition was close, but there can only be one Wisest Wonk.

Without further ado, the winner of Fordham’s 2016 Wonkathon is Christy Wolfe, whose “School choice and Section 1003(b): It's in there!” came in with 19 percent of the...

 
 

In Fordham’s third annual Wonkathon, eleven wonks opined on ESSA and parental choice:

Many observers credit No Child Left Behind with contributing to the significant expansion of parental choice in American education over the past fifteen years. It wasn't necessarily the school choice provisions contained in the law (which were limited and poorly designed), but what its passage did to shine a spotlight on school failure and create a sense that better schools were desperately needed.

Likewise, some in the school choice movement are disappointed that the new Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't do much legislatively to promote choice. But are they overlooking the law's potential? What do you think are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity?

But who was the wisest, wonkiest wonk of all? Vote for the best policy discussion on education savings accounts. Polls close on Wednesday, May 18, at 12:00 p.m. EDT. One vote per person, please. (And may the best wonk win!)

UPDATE: Voting is now closed. Click here to see the results.

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Alex Medler

Editor's note: This is the final post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, here, and here.

I nominate one of the smallest pieces of the ESSA as a potential high-leverage point for choice. Hidden in the Charter School Program (CSP) amid language shaping the grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) is a little provision that could eventually lead to big changes regarding school choice. States can now spend 7 percent of their grants on system-level changes to support charter school expansion and quality.

Most everyone in the charter world knows that the CSP received more than $330 million this year. The biggest portion of that money goes to SEAs in the form of grants (which underwrite the sub-grants the SEAs themselves award to would-be charters in order to meet start-up costs). Let’s consider how a small bit—if people are smart about how they use it—could drive big change.

The SEA grant program traditionally allowed...

 
 
Brian Kisida

Editor's note: This is the tenth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

There isn’t much in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that explicitly addresses school choice. Still, there will likely be indirect effects from some ESSA policies. Specifically, I think there are two key areas where ESSA will have important implications for school choice. First, both the weighted student funding pilot program and the new requirement to report school-level expenditures will further solidify the idea that dollars should follow students, which will likely lead to increases in school choice funding levels. Second, the requirement for more diverse measures in state accountability systems aligns with school choice’s focus on innovation and specialization. With academic success defined across a broader set of outcomes, the ability for choice schools to pursue broader academic outcomes will be less constrained.

School-level spending transparency and student-based budgeting

Under ESSA, states will be required to report expenditures at the school...

 
 
Jordan Posamentier

Editor's note: This is the ninth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found hereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

ESSA provides states with the opportunity to incentivize school districts to expand parent choice. States now have the freedom to relax their NCLB-driven state laws while incentivizing local authorities to go about improving choice in their school systems.

ESSA replaced NCLB, but the law of the land leading up to reauthorization was shaped by the Obama administration’s waiver program. The Department of Education used those waivers to compel states to pass a number of rather prescriptive laws, which tied the hands of districts in some policy areas. Perhaps the most onerous requirement was performance-based teacher evaluations, which—while well intentioned—were also highly constraining.

ESSA cleared the regulatory deck established by the waiver program, but by and large, the state laws that passed because of those waivers are still on the books. To unbind districts from those laws, states can now do one of three...

 
 
Travis Pillow

Editor's note: This is the eighth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehere, and here.

Regardless of exactly how they're funded, schools all over the United States face a basic problem. Many of those serving the most disadvantaged students tend to have the fewest resources.

In a nod to equity advocates, the new federal education law includes a modest attempt to entice school districts toward a solution: weighted funding. The Every Student Succeeds Act includes a pilot program that, in its first three years, would allow up to fifty districts to allocate funding to schools based on the characteristics of students they enroll. Schools would receive more funding for children who have special needs, speak a native language other than English, or come from a low-income families.

Many of the school finance reforms sought by choice advocates, such as true funding portability, didn't make it into the new statute. While the pilot program won't usher in a financing system in...

 
 
Christy Wolfe

Editor's note: This was a submission to Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Of the eleven submissions, this was selected as the winner by a poll of our readers.

One of my biggest concerns about ESSA has been its lack of a meaningful “safety valve” for kids in failing schools. There is no getting around the fact that this version of ESEA does not spell out parent-directed education options the same way No Child Left Behind did, with its explicit provisions for supplemental educational services and school choice. When ESSA eliminated the “cascade of sanctions” for schools deemed “in need ofimprovement”, explicit references to closing schools and reopening them as charters also disappeared. There are no requirements (let alone incentives) for choice and transportation.

What we learned from NCLB, though, is that unwanted mandates don’t usually lead to much real access to seats in better schools. Washington can tell a district it must offer school choice regardless of capacity, but in the real world the absence of high-quality...

 
 
Neil Campbell

Editor's note: This is the sixth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found hereherehere, here, and here.

What course would you have wanted to take in high school if you’d had the chance?

For me, it’s economics. I’ve started many meetings about course access with that question as an icebreaker. The first few times, I even had the “brilliant” idea to drop the responses into a word cloud. But that ended up being a dud when everyone gave different answers and astronomy, law and policy, psychology, photography, geometry, Japanese, physics, and accounting were all the same size.

Cool story, but what’s course access?

It is a policy under which kids get access to a range of supplemental courses approved by their states that may not otherwise be available in the schools they attend full-time. Think of it as an evolution from states solely being providers of supplemental courses through virtual programs. The state’s role in course access is one of quality assurance...

 
 
Matthew Joseph

Editor's note: This is the fifth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found hereherehere, and here.

Of the many provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the weighted student funding pilot program may have the most profound impact on school choice. By maximizing the money that follows students, including those with high needs, the pilots could lead to the expansion of high-quality choice programs.

The basics of weighted student funding

Weighted student funding—also known as student-centered funding, student-based budgeting, and fair student funding—devotes a base amount of funding to each student. Additional funds (or weights) are then provided for students who need additional services, such as low-income or disabled students and English language learners.

Schools receive funding based on the number of students they enroll and the characteristics of those students. If a student moves from one school to another, the receiving school gets the money designated for that student. This is very different from the vast majority of current funding...

 
 
Claire Voorhees

Editor's note: This is the fourth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehere, and here.

Education reformers and policy makers across the nation have spent the months since the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) passage debating the merits of various approaches to identifying low-performing schools—which indicators, how much weight, indexes or no indexes? We’ve spent a lot less time debating an even more important question: What are states going to do once those schools are identified? At the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) we’re hopeful that states will leverage the power of parental choice to spur rapid and dramatic turnaround in their lowest-performing districts and schools.

But in April 2016, we surveyed nearly one hundred of our state education reform partners on their plans for ESSA implementation. Respondents represented legislatures, state departments of education, state boards of education, governors’ offices, and advocacy organizations from over thirty states. Among other questions, we asked them which supports and interventions they anticipated their states would provide...

 
 

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