What’s up with ESSA? Your questions answered. | Leadership for Educational Equity Skip to main content

What’s up with ESSA? Your questions answered.

  • Photo credit:
    Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon
    President Obama signs signs Every Student Succeeds Act

On December 10, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Media coverage has left many wondering about ESSA and what its passage really means for public education. We’re here to provide some clarity.

1.   How are ESSA, ESEA and NCLB related?

The discussion of ESSA contains an alphabet soup of legislative terminology. If you’ve found it confusing, here’s the rundown:

In 1965, President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA was initially part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and was designed to ensure equal access to education.

In 2001, this act was reauthorized under President Bush as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Though NCLB’s passage was overwhelmingly bipartisan, as it was implemented, many criticized its emphasis on standardized testing and sanctions tied to Adequate Yearly Progress—a measure of school and district achievement based on student performance.

Although NCLB was due for reauthorization in 2007, Congress was unable to pass a bill despite numerous attempts by lawmakers. Then, in 2015, the 113th Congress was able to reauthorize the bill as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA is the name of the most recent version of ESEA, but ultimately all three bills refer to the same law.

Visit Education Week’s timeline of ESEA for more information on how it has changed over the years.

2.   What took so long to reauthorize ESEA?

NCLB was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007. While Congress has introduced and debated numerous attempts at reauthorization, none were able to garner the bipartisan support needed for passage.

In the meantime, in 2012 the Obama administration developed a program of waivers that enabled states to operate outside of NCLB’s regulations if they promised to implement other measures to support student achievement. These waivers were controversial because they introduced a new level of federal involvement in education and incentivized states to implement certain education reforms, such as comprehensive teacher evaluations.

For more information on how the ESEA reauthorization was finally passed, read Politico’s detailed account.

3.   How will ESSA change education? When will these changes be put into effect?

In general, ESSA strips some of the federal government’s involvement in education, giving local and state education agencies more authority.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how the new legislation will play out, particularly because the specific regulations have not yet been developed. However, here are a few of the ways ESSA will likely change education:

Accountability: ESSA gets rid of the Adequate Yearly Progress ratings that NCLB required. States will still need to have an accountability system that rates their schools, but they’ll have more flexibility on how to determine those ratings. While academic factors must be included, so can non-academic factors like school climate, student access to opportunities, and parent satisfaction.

Government intervention: Districts and states will have more flexibility to determine how to improve failing schools, rather than following prescriptive federal mandates regarding intervention. They will also have more choice to determine how they test their students, although 95% of students will still need to be tested.

Pre-K: ESSA makes Preschool Development Grants available, given that federal money is allocated for them. These grants could help expand access to early learning opportunities across the country.

Read about more changes on Education Week’s helpful cheat sheet.

NCLB waivers will be voided in the summer of 2016, and the 2016-2017 school year will be an interim year in which states and districts can begin to test out some of the new systems. ESSA’s regulations will be fully implemented in the 2017-2018 school year.

4.   Who supports or opposes ESSA—and why?

Overall, ESSA has wide-ranging, bipartisan support. Many people found faults with NCLB, and even its supporters felt that changes had to be made to the law.

In general, Republicans support ESSA for its emphasis on local and state power and limitations on federal control. Alternatively, Democrats support ESSA for retaining measures to ensure failing schools are identified and put on improvement plans.

However, skeptics are concerned that disadvantaged student populations will not be adequately supported by the new legislations, as it removes federal pressure on schools to ensure student success. In the coming months, the government will go through a comment period in which these groups can express the need for ESSA’s regulations to ensure equity. You can submit your comments to the government online.

5.   Where can I learn more?

Education policy news at websites like Education Week and newsletters like Fritzwire can keep you up to date. Also, LEE members can visit the Policy Leadership Toolkit for more information.


This post is intended to provide objective, nonpartisan analysis that is both fair and evidence-based. Leadership for Educational Equity does not endorse or support specific policies or policy positions.