In September 2018, Florida received final approval from the U.S. Department of Education for its ESSA State Plan. Florida was the last state in the nation to receive such approval, as state and federal education officials squabbled for months over the state’s proposed plan.
By Dr. Elizabeth Primas, NNPA ESSA Awareness Campaign Program Manager
How is Florida addressing the needs of its lowest-performing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? Last year, the Collaborative for Student Success an independent non-profit education advocacy organization, sought to find out. They did so by convening a group of education experts from around the country to take an in-depth look at the way 17 states were supporting and encouraging local school improvement efforts.
The experts, both from the federal and district level, provided education officials and state lawmakers with independent information on how each state could improve their plans and implementation. However, what they discovered in Florida’s ESSA plan was not encouraging.
In September 2018, Florida received final approval from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for its ESSA State Plan. Florida was the last state in the nation to receive such approval, as state and federal education officials squabbled months over the state’s pro-posed plan.
The Florida plan was originally submitted to the DOE in September 2017, but officials failed to include the waiver requests for the specific portions of the law to which it objected.
Federal officials sent the plan back to Florida Department of Education, saying they couldn’t pick and choose which aspects of the law to follow, and that they needed to submit waivers for the areas where they would like to be granted exceptions.
Florida submitted a re-vised ESSA plan to the DOE in April 2018 in an effort to comply with their requests and included a separate federal school rating system—one that factors in English-language learner proficiency and subgroup performance—which would work alongside the state’s existing A-F grading methodology to target struggling schools.
The primary areas of difference between Florida’s education officials and those within the DOE had to do with the Florida’s proposed approach to provisions regarding English-language learners and demographic-based subgroups — and federal officials weren’t the only ones saying that Florida’s plan left a lot to be desired. Civil rights groups repeatedly raised the alarm as well, asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reject Florida’s ESSA plan.
In a November 2017 letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, more than a dozen civil rights groups said they had “significant concerns” regarding the plan, which they believed failed “to serve the interests of marginalized students in the state” and “to comply with the requirements of the law.”
According to Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg, who serves on the committee for LULAC Florida, an advocacy group serving all Hispanic nationality groups, Florida’s “current plan includes features that contradict common sense, expert opinion, popular will, and the intent of the ESSA. Contrary to the purposes of the ESSA, the Florida plan denies attention to struggling subgroups of students. Without attention, there can be no correction.”
A year later, with Florida now implementing a revised state accountability plan, the peer reviewers convened by the Collaborative had similar (and additional) concerns.
While noting that “empowering local leaders is a core component of successful school turnaround,” the peer reviewers worried that “too much autonomy, without sufficient state supports, may not help the students and schools in most need.”
This, the peer reviewers believe, reflects a “lack of commitment to closing achievement gaps by not addressing subgroup performance or English learner proficiency in the state’s accountability system,” meaning “districts and schools are less likely to focus on these populations as they plan and implement school improvement strategies.” The same concern and fear raised by civil rights groups a year earlier.
The peer reviewers did applaud Florida for its “overall clear, student-focused vision around high standards, college and career readiness, and rigorous accountability and improvement,” and “clearly defined and easy-to-understand A-F grading system, which places a strong emphasis on academic growth and accelerated coursework.”
However, the peer re-viewers recommended that the state rework its accountability system to incorporate student subgroups and English-language learner proficiency. They also noted that Florida’s use of dual accountability systems “raises issues with school improvement implementation as it can cause confusion about which schools are being identified and how to prioritize efforts the most underserved com-munities to demand high-quality schools for children in Oakland.” Since then, the organization has informed more than 4,000 parents on the state of Oakland schools and trained over 300 parents in advocacy through its Oakland Family Advocacy Fellowship.
“If you’re Black and low-income in Oakland, you have to fight for the right to a good school,” Young says. Two-thirds of Black students in Oakland attend a school rated below the state average and only 1% attend a school. So Young looks for “parents willing to speak truth to power—and kinda trouble-makers.”
Oakland Unified School District, faced with fiscal problems and too many half-empty schools, is closing school buildings to save money. Young and Oakland Reach decided to ask the district to give preference in high quality schools to students whose schools are closed. They dubbed this policy “The Opportunity Ticket,” worked tirelessly to advocate for it, and won a victory when the school board voted unanimously for it.
“Having to choose a school and having access are two different things,” Young ex-plains. The Opportunity Ticket will give more low-income families access to the district’s best schools.
Oakland Reach wants all parents to have the same opportunities Young had, when she enrolled her sons in a public charter school. Today, more than 31% of Oakland’s public-school students attend charters. Young fought to have her sons enroll in a school that, on average, graduates 86% of its students on time, com-pared to 75% in traditional public schools. Young’s sons and their classmates are also more likely to be accepted to college. In Oakland, 34% of African American and Latino charter graduates are accepted to college, exceeding the district average of 15%.
Young is part of a wave of Black women leading parent advocacy organizations around the country, including Aretta Baldon in Atlanta, Maya Martin Cadogan in Washington D.C., and Sarah Carpenter in Memphis. To Young, parents most impacted by failing schools have not been at the decision-making table. “We are at the table now,” she says. “Parents bring a certain level of urgency [because] we don’t have an out. All Black mommas needed were resources. Black mommas have been fighting for their kids since fighting to keep kids from being enslaved.”
Philanthropic investments in parent-led organizations like Oakland Reach have shifted the landscape for Black women in leadership. “The missing components were re-sources to fight,” Young says. “There haven’t been enough resources put behind Black mommas and Black daddies. This is new, this is like put-ting on a new suit … for us and for funders. People with resources trusting us.”
While Young celebrates the voice of Black women, she recognizes that the Opportunity Ticket was successful thanks to an al-liance with upper middle-class parents. “You need multiple stakeholders at the table,” she says. “Passing the Opportunity Ticket took a coalition of white allied parents and a focus on quality and equity for all kids.”