Parents, teachers and students met with U.S. Assistant Deputy Education Secretary Libia Gil at a Tucson high school Wednesday to discuss a new federal law designed to give states more flexibility and authority in K-12 education.
Gil’s stop at Pueblo Magnet High School, 3500 S. 12th Ave., is part of her listening tour for the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law in December 2015. It would replace No Child Left Behind in the 2017-2018 school year as the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which sought to establish equity in education.
Educators and community members filled the school’s library, where U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva moderated a discussion between Gil and the audience, which included the TUSD and Sunnyside school district superintendents, governing board members and the vice-chair of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Gil began the discussion by highlighting some of the major changes, including reduced burden of testing; higher focus on vulnerable students, such as homeless students, English language learners and those in foster care; and high quality preschool.
Under ESSA, states have more control over what assessments are used to teach students, how school success is measured and what programs in schools are essential versus supplementary. “We know that there is no one-size-fits-all,” Gil said.
Each state must come up with its own ESSA adaptation plan, which Arizona is in the process of crafting.
“All of us need to be a little wary about what that plan would look like,” Grijalva said.
Other highlights of ESSA pointed out by Gil included the expanded eligibility for grants that help with teacher preparation programs. Under No Child Left Behind, only higher education institutions, such as universities, were eligible. To ease the teacher shortage problem across the country and increase ways students can aspire to be teachers, ESSA allows for alternative institutions and nonprofits to apply for the grant.
The deputy education secretary repeatedly emphasized the importance of community feedback. The federal law itself was crafted based on more than 21,000 comments from organizations, educators and parents from around the country. She encouraged Tucsonans to give feedback to the state for its plan.
H.T. Sanchez, superintendent of Tucson Unified School District, said he was concerned that the state’s proposed framework for accountability looked identical to what was in place before. He wanted to know how the federal government could ensure that states don’t just assign new names to old plans.
“There will be scrutiny on the state plan,” Gil told Sanchez.
A parent of two children enrolled in TUSD shared a similar concern. Cesar Aguirre said he was not convinced that even with the requirement to seek public feedback, Arizona’s plan would end up doing the same old things that put Arizona at the bottom of education rankings. “I feel like the state is our biggest obstacle,” he said.
On ESSA, Aguirre said, “A lot of things look good on paper. Just like No Child Left Behind, it sounds good and looks good.” But when those policies get implemented at the school level is only when Arizonans will see if it’s actually any good, he added.