Three Solid Ways To Localize The ESSA Funding Debate

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My guess is that a fair number of education reporters are getting notes from their editors right about now, asking if and when they’re going to write a piece about ESSA, the new federal education law that’s causing no small amount of controversy even though it hasn’t really taken effect yet. 

It’s not an easy thing, making a story about federal rulemaking and financial accounting details vivid and interesting to everyday readers. But let me see if I can help.

The first thing to do is read some of the coverage that’s already been produced: 

*Ed Week has covered this a number of times, including these two pieces (Education Secretary Advocates Robust ESSA Rules Amid GOP BacklashReport to Congress: Proposed Spending Rules Appear to Exceed ESSA Language). 

*An NPR story this morning (The ‘Intolerable’ Fight Over School Money) adds that Senator Alexander has told states to resist this regulation if it isn’t changed or stopped through other means. 

*A NYT piece by New America’s Kevin Carey (Why There’s an Uproar Over Trying to Increase Funding for Poor Schools) tells the backstory and makes the case in favor of the Obama position.

*Over at the Brookings blog, funding expert Marguerite Roza has a post that’s also worth reading: More equitable spending on its way regardless of rulemaking

With that as background, here are some approaches that might result in a a strong piece about a tough, complicated, extremely wonky issue:

LOCAL EFFECTS: See if you can find out how the new ESSA funding rule would affect two different schools in your coverage area, both in terms of dollars and staffing/programs. Reach out to the folks at the Edunomics Lab, or New America, or the USDE, who all have a hodge-podge of figures showing the current differentials. The NPR story names Nora Gordon, of Georgetown University, as an expert. The NYT story talks about a pair of schools in Queens each receiving different amounts. The Brookings blog post describes Seattle differences.

What would a high-poverty school do with the windfall that might arrive? How would a mid-poverty school respond if it couldn’t keep all its veteran teachers? Just make sure that you’re not just hearing and passing along worst-case scenarios, or talking to folks whose oxen are being gored. 

DAY IN THE LIFE: One of the effects that some expect will happen when the new rule is implemented is that veteran teachers will move to higher-poverty schools that can afford them (assuming they don’t quit). Find a teacher who’s already made the move from a more affluent school to a poorer one, and report their real-life experience. 

The most famous example that I know of is Chicago’s Karen Lewis, who moved from a North Side high school to the South Side (and then became head of the Chicago Teachers Union). But I’m sure there are others, and it would be interesting and useful to see what these teachers’ experiences were like. The Teacher of the Year group might help you find folks in your area, or the NBCT folks, or the local administrators’ association. Veteran teachers showing up in high-poverty schools tend to stand out.

LOCAL POLITICS: Find out where your elected officials stand on the issue, which has divided Democrats and teachers unions, traditional allies. See if you can get them to explain why they’re for or against the Obama rule (or whatever you want to call it), and then compare their positions to state and district education leaders (who are likely against the provision).

Nobody’s going to get elected or fired based on their position on this issue, but especially for Democrats it’s a tough decision. Go with civil rights groups and Democrats including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or go with school administrators and teachers unions (and Republicans)?

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.