The New Federal ESSA Statute: A Step Backward for Fair School Funding

By Michael A. Rebell 

At the end of 2015, Congress finally enacted a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which now will be known as the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). Our highly polarized Congress was eight years late in reconsidering and revising the major federal statute for funding services for students who are “educationally disadvantaged”; the previous version of this law, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was scheduled for reauthorization in 2007. Millions of students living in poverty, and English language learners (ELLs), were, in fact, left behind by NCLB. Although ESSA does in limited ways correct some of the shortcomings of NCLB and provide scope for some educational innovations, on balance this new law ignores the real needs of the students it is designed to serve and so is likely to be no more successful than its predecessor in carrying out the aspirations of its title.

Emphasizes Accountability over Resources
The fundamental problem with ESSA is that, like its predecessor, it emphasizes accountability for results but neglects the resources that schools, teachers, and students need to reach high academic standards. Its accountability theory, borrowed from the business world, treats principals and teachers as managers subject to sanctions should they fail to achieve designated performance targets. Businesses, of course, generally provide their managers and employees adequate resources to do their jobs well as a matter of course; states do not. For states (and the federal government) to hold students and educators accountable for increasingly demanding academic standards but then shirk their legal and moral responsibility to deliver sufficient funding to provide all students a meaningful opportunity for an adequate and appropriate education is ineffective, unreasonable, and wrong.

Moves Authority to States
Before discussing this core funding issue in more detail, I should mention a few of the positive, innovative features of ESSA. First, the law eliminates the unachievable federal mandates that all students (100%) achieve proficiency in strong state standards within 12 years and that schools achieve strict adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets based on that unattainable goal. ESSA allows states to set their own outcome goals and progress measures. It also requires states to add to standardized test scores and graduation rates at least one qualitative measure such as student engagement, completion of advanced course work, and school climate and safety (and permits them to include more than one of these measures). The statute requires, however, that “much more weight” be given to standardized scores and graduation rates than to these other measures. States may also use a limited amount of their federal funds for academic enrichment and comprehensive educational services such as promoting greater access to high-quality and advanced courses in science, mathematics, languages other than English, the arts; expanding mental-health services; promoting expanded and better use of technology; and promoting greater coordination with community-based services and programs.

Although states now will have the option to utilize their ESSA funds to implement these innovations, the U.S. Department of Education cannot compel them to do so. In fact, the ESSA statute places numerous new limitations on the authority of the U.S. Secretary of Education to overrule state discretion in many aspects of their plans and accountability systems. Congress has stated that the Secretary cannot tie waivers to requirements for state teacher-evaluation systems and has restricted the Secretary’s oversight in many other ways-clearly reacting to the conditions that Secretary Arne Duncan had attached to Race to the Top grants and NCLB waivers.

Neglects School Funding Inequities and Inadequacies
When Congress enacted NCLB by a strong bipartisan majority in 2001, the lead congressional negotiators, Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative George Miller, understood that the law could not succeed without major increases in federal funding. These Democratic leaders made an historic deal with the Republican president, George W. Bush, agreeing to the accountability measures that he favored in return for a commitment to a funding increase that might allow the nation’s schools to achieve these ambitious results. Accordingly, NCLB authorized a huge increase in basic Title I funding (almost 100% over five years), and, in the first year, Congress appropriated an overall NCLB increase of nearly $4 billion. In later years, however, Congress did not keep these funding commitments, and, in inflation-adjusted terms, actual Title I appropriations today are far below the original NCLB authorization level.

By comparison, ESSA authorizes minimal 3% annual Title I increases for the next few years, and, of course, it is not clear that Congress will appropriate even those amounts. (NCLB-related funding has been flat for most of the past few years.) The law does include two new provisions that deal with equity in funding. The first requires improvement plans for “targeted” schools (the 5% lowest performing schools in each school district) to include provisions that identify and address resource inequities, which may include a review of the local school district’s school-level budgeting allocations. The second authorizes a competitive grant program that will allow 50 local school districts throughout the country to consolidate most of their federal and state funds in order to create a single school-funding system based on weighted per-pupil allocations for students grappling with poverty or other disadvantages. Although these programs may lead to more equity in the allocation of intra-district funding in the small number of school districts to which they apply, these so-called “equitable funding” provisions do not deal with the critical (and much larger) issue of whether these districts-and all other districts in their respective states-are presently receiving adequate state-level funding.

The numerous legal challenges that have been mounted against states throughout the nation in recent decades have dramatically demonstrated a huge gap in virtually every state between existing state appropriations for education and the funding levels needed to provide students, especially ELLs and those living in poverty, with meaningful educational opportunities. Several years ago, I served on the National Equity and Excellence Commission, which Congress created to deal with this issue. The Commission’s 2013 report [add link] advised Congress on how to assure adequate and equitable state funding for education. Its proposal, endorsed unanimously by its bipartisan members, recommended that the federal government “[d]irect states, with appropriate incentives, to adopt and implement school finance systems that will (1) provide a meaningful educational opportunity for all students, along with appropriate budgetary and other frameworks to ensure the effective and efficient use of all funds to enable all students to achieve state content and performance standards . . . and (2) demonstrate progress toward implementing such a school finance system.”[1] In enacting ESSA, Congress totally ignored this recomendation. Unless and until such a provision is included in ESSA, Congress’s intention that “Every Student Succeeds” will remain wishful thinking.


Michael A. Rebell is professor of law and educational practice and executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is coauthor (with Jessica R. Wolff) of Moving Every Child Ahead: From NCLB Hype to Meaningful Educational Opportunity (2008) and co-editor (with Jessica Wolff) of NCLB at the Crossroads: Reexamining the Federal Effort to Close the Achievement Gap (2009).

[1] U.S. Department of Education (2013). For Each and Every Child–A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence. Washington, DC.

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