Bad Humours: A Bloodletter’s Guide to ESSA Implementation

By Guy Johnson, Sr. Program Director | Partners for Each and Every Child

As we reflect on the current logic model of federal support for education policy in states and districts, we may have occasion to look to advancements in medical science for a measure of inspiration and relief. In the face of a plethora of physical and psychological threats to our well-being, we are fortunate that human knowledge has advanced so far that we have many effective, evidence-based options for medical treatment. How positively invigorating that our doctors and hospitals today must provide advice and treatment that is backed by good science instead of fictions such as bodily humours and the benefits of massive bloodletting.

We are similarly fortunate that our analytical faculties, including our civic, political, and social sciences, have also identified numerous effective, evidence-based options for addressing civic, social, and systemic challenges to our well-being. How interesting, considering these advancements, that the prevailing educational strategy of the day from our nation’s capital appears to favor the massive extraction of clarity, consistency, and shared understanding from our system of educational governance.

A familiar matter to advocates in the national education policy sphere over the past few months, the current symptom of what has been a longer-term malady bears some dedicated attention. Claiming that most federal regulations are unnecessary, President Trump issued an executive order earlier this year directing all federal agencies to review existing regulations and guidance and to make recommendations for repeals, replacements, and modifications. In keeping with this executive order, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos convened a Regulatory Reform Task Force at the U.S. Department of Education (US ED). The Task Force issued an initial progress report, and US ED gave notice in the Federal Register of an opportunity for the public to submit comments as to which regulations should be protected, repealed, or changed.

Partners for is not inherently opposed to attempts to rationalize and curate the shape and substance of the federal regulatory regime. The details, furthermore, of some of the regulations at issue—such as use of the Department’s official seal—do not directly implicate Partners for’s interests in educational equity. Still, Partners for’s perspective echoes the essential substance of letters submitted by a number of national and local groups that work on advancing equity and protecting the civil rights of underserved and vulnerable groups: there is significant value in maintaining the existing guidance documents and federal regulations that protect the interests of underserved and vulnerable student groups.

Regulations and guidance issued by US ED promote a broader common understanding of terms not precisely defined under federal  statute and help establish clear statewide implementation standards for districts, schools, and stakeholders. In this way, they provide clarity for state and local actors, strengthen state and local authority, and outline a framework for public-private collaboration in the interest of providing all students with an equal opportunity to learn in a safe and welcoming environment. To the degree these regulations and pieces of guidance are developed using a notice-and-comment process, they reflect public input, demonstrate procedural transparency and provide a basis for the increased accountability of government actors.

Federal efforts to rescind these regulations and guidance documents, particularly with no publicly released or publicly-vetted replacements ready as a substitute, are tantamount to ideologically-motivated civic bloodletting. Rather than liberate schools, districts, and states from an imaginary federal bogeyman, the broad-scale, indiscriminate effort to eliminate regulations and guidance pertaining to the education of specific student groups will foster significant procedural and substantive uncertainty among states, districts, and schools, making their work more difficult and hindering efforts to ensure equal opportunity for all students in schools across our country.

We should be clear that the aspirations of the administration's current approach are not so much “conservative” as fundamentally medieval: the creation of thousands of distinct fiefdoms. To be fair, assuming a set of facts where electorates are actually representative of populations, where elected and appointed government officials prize equity over political spoils, and where evidence, not ideology, fuels policy reform, this kind of medieval shift might not be quite as alarming as it is in our current context.

The concept of “local control” is particularly fraught for many of us who care deeply about advancing the interests of underserved and underrepresented groups because our nation’s social and political history is replete with examples where the concept of “states’ rights” has been a front for campaigns to limit or deny or otherwise suppress the rights of those disfavored by a ruling minority.

The roots of inequity are widespread and penetratingly deep. The mind boggles at an approach that would wipe out existing protections—with no alternative in place—for low-income students, students with disabilities, and student groups by race, sex, age, and native language. It is chilling to contemplate the functioning of a federal bureaucracy inured to the needs of students who are or have been subject to sexual, racial, and/or disability-based discrimination, whether through overt acts or more insidious, institutional means.

We, the children of history, are very fortunate to face down such challenges without the need of sorcery or bloodletting. Considering that robust, if imperfect, systems of  information on which to base our actions already exist, that the federal government has already articulated some sense of shared responsibility for all students, and that local, state, and national-level advocates and thought leaders have access to an ever-expanding sense of evidence-based practices, we, the stakeholders in our country’s educational system, would do well to begin from lessons learned, and leave bad humours behind.