Opportunities Remain in ESSA for Supporting Health

  • March 16, 2017
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The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) set the stage for states to more fully integrate health and wellness into education. The law reflects a recognition that health has an impact on schools’ core mission of ensuring student learning. It also transfers significant authority from the federal government to states. This means that states have an opportunity to develop strategies and plans for implementing ESSA in ways that support student health and wellness. Until last week, those plans were based on regulations issued by the Department of Education (ED) in 2016. Now, Congress has repealed those regulations and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has announced new, less-detailed, non-regulatory guidance in their place.

The good news for state leaders who have been working on their ESSA plans—and for all of us who care about children’s health in school—is that this change should not impede state efforts to support health and well-being. HSC’s State ESSA Framework for Action, a guide for advocates and state-level leaders on implementing ESSA in ways that support health, focuses on several key elements of the law, such as health and wellness measures on school report cards, needs assessments, professional development and the inclusion of non-academic indicators in school accountability systems. These elements are part of the law and are not affected by this change in guidance.

However, it is worth noting a significant change in the approach to stakeholder engagement outlined in the new guidance. The original regulations required states to report on their efforts to seek input from multiple stakeholders—including parents, district-level school leaders, civil rights groups and higher education institutions—in developing the state plans. (In many states, this engagement has already happened. Carissa Moffat Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, told Education Week that “They’ve done all that stakeholder consultation, and quite frankly, that’s made these plans better.”) The new guidance says that states may seek engagement but are not required to do so.

It is important to note that stakeholder engagement is a core requirement of ESSA and that the law requires the engagement of multiple stakeholder groups in the development of ESSA plans, including teachers, principals, administrators, parents, specialized instructional support personnel and other school leaders. The new guidance goes against the intention of ESSA which was to encourage significant input from a wide variety of stakeholders.

At HSC, we strongly believe that schools are better, healthier places when all stakeholders are engaged and committed to strengthening children’s well-being. We applaud the states that are continuing to seek this robust and valuable input in crafting their state plans. Our partners have released excellent resources on stakeholder engagement that we encourage state decision makers and advocates to utilize in developing their state ESSA plans. These resources include the Coalition for Community Schools’ Stakeholder Engagement in the Every Student Succeeds Act and Partners for Each and Every Child’s The Case for Meaningful Stakeholder Engagement and A Handbook for Meaningful Stakeholder Engagement.

Under ED’s original regulation, states were required to submit their ESSA state plans by one of two deadlines: April 3 or Sept. 18. Many state leaders have been working on their plans for more than a year and 18 states are planning to submit plans by the April 3 deadline. Many states will continue moving forward with the state plans developed under the original regulations.

Overall, HSC believes this change will lead to a lack of clarity for state and local leaders seeking to comply with federal education law and do the right thing by their state’s children and communities. HSC’s Framework for Action provides a clear pathway for how to do so in a way that supports student health and school wellness. We encourage advocates and policymakers to leverage this resource and stay the course in supporting children’s health at school.