Thirty states and Puerto Rico turned in their Every Student Succeeds Act plans in time for the U.S. Department of Education’s deadline of midnight on September 18. Four hurricane-ravaged states—Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Texas—got an extension for later this fall. 

This is the second of two big batches of ESSA plans. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia turned in their plans last spring. And most of those—Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—have gotten approvals from the department. Colorado will turn its revised plan in October. And Massachusetts and Michigan are still waiting for the green light.

It’s unclear how much influence the Department of Education is having—or wants to have—on state ESSA visions. So far, they have given a seal of approval to state plans even if they didn’t necessarily include all of the changes the agency asked for in its official feedback.

However, some top Democrats in Congress working on educational issues think there hasn’t been nearly enough oversight of those state plans. They have urged DeVos and the department of education to scrutinize more the incoming batch.  

Highlights of the new plan

One of the biggest changes in ESSA is that states must look at more than just test scores in rating schools. Many of the states that submitted their plans last spring chose to consider chronic absenteeism or college-and-career readiness as an added focus. And those factors were popular with the new batch.

States offered some interesting specifics when it comes to school improvement. For instance, Arkansas is allowing its schools to use early-childhood education as an improvement strategy. And West Virginia is pairing low-performing schools with high-flyers that have similar demographics so that the schools can learn from one another.

States also had to come up with plans to address teacher quality. New York wants to continue to push to ensure high-poverty schools get access to strong teachers. Missouri highlighted its programs to support new teachers.

Early-childhood education was a factor in more than half a dozen state plans, according to a CCSSO analysis. Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Arkansas all incorporated it into their plans in some fashion.

There are some states that are getting pushback on their plans from local advocates. For example, in California, there are fears that its plan does not offer assurances that it will truly hold schools and districts accountable for improving performance and closing achievement gaps for highly disadvantaged students. There are concerns that California’s system will not be easy to understand for parents. 

Political Tensions

There’s been plenty of political tension within states as they rushed to get their plans on DeVos’ desk. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, refused to sign off on the plan written by the state chief, Tony Evers, who happens to be running against him for governor. Walker called Evers’ ideas “bureaucratic” and said the state’s plan should look more like Tennessee’s.

And in Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan also refused to sign off on the state’s plan. He said the state board didn’t have free rein to craft a plan that would identify and fix the state’s lowest-performing schools. That’s thanks to a new state law backed by the teachers’ union that says test scores can’t count for more than 65 percent of a school’s overall rating.

The Maryland law also bars the state department of education from requiring low-performing schools to convert to charters, giving students vouchers to attend private schools, or creating a state-run turnaround district.