The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues to be one of the most controversial issues affecting secondary school principals, especially as it proceeds through the implementation stage. We convened a roundtable of ESSA experts to dive into both the substance and process of the act, including John George, NASSP state coordinator for Oregon and the Oregon Association of Secondary School Principals, and principal at Dexter McCarty Middle School in the Gresham-Barlow School District in Gresham, OR; Mark Korcinsky, principal at Seneca Valley Senior High School in Harmony, PA, and NASSP state coordinator for Pennsylvania; and Alison Maley, governmental relations/public relations director at the Illinois Principals Association, headquartered in Springfield, IL. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion in June.

Levin-Epstein: Where are we right now on the implementation of ESSA? 

Korcinsky: In Pennsylvania, we have gone through a number of stakeholder meetings and public town halls, under the auspices of the state Department of Education, and we’re now awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Education. We are diligently watching state legislative action. Most of the principals in the state are awaiting what that decision will be regarding testing and metrics, and the regulations and procedures for implementing the act.

George: The state of Oregon has proceeded similarly to what Pennsylvania has done in terms of outreach across our state. In Oregon, there were more than 170 town halls, as well as groups involving everyone from principal associations to teachers to classified unions to our Latino Outreach Coordination offices. I believe that our plan moving forward is very solid in terms of continuing down the path that we have been on. We haven’t upset the apple cart. We’ve adapted and fine-tuned the good things that we’ve been doing to meet the requirements of ESSA. One big change, perhaps, is the elimination of using SBAC for the eleventh-grade accountability measure. There’s consensus across the state that our high school juniors are overtested. From SBAC to SAT, ASVAB, and all the other assessments, it seems there’s just too much. So, the state is going to select one of those assessments as our accountability measure in the eleventh grade. It will probably come down to a selection between SAT and ACT. The biggest issue for us as principals and as educators is, of course, the funding under ESSA.

Maley: Illinois had a similar process of stakeholder and community input. The Illinois State Board of Education hosted three rounds of a statewide listening tour, each following the release of a new draft plan. In addition, members of our association and staff have been involved in various ESSA working groups to help determine goals, school and district designations, valid measures, and more aspects of the ESSA plan. A large part of the work on the plan occurred among our Illinois Balanced Accountability Measure Committee (IBAM). This group was formed in 2015 to identify school districts that would implement a new balanced accountability measure to account for student performance, but also professional practice. The Illinois P-20 Council also spent a lot of time reviewing and discussing measures that could be used and the weighting of those measures. 

Funding: A Top Priority

Levin-Epstein: Let’s go a little deeper into the funding issue.

George: I think the proposed cuts to Title II and Title IV will have a significant impact to programs. People have to remember that state education budgets mostly go to fund staffing. Title funds are vital to programs. Decreases to the state budget in Oregon eliminate positions or days in the school year. A decrease in Title funding eliminates programs. Cuts to Title I for next year have meant that my district has to eliminate Title I programs in three elementary schools. Cuts, in particular those to Title II, will all but eliminate the funding for professional development for educators. This will really hamper our efforts in the state of Oregon to close the achievement gaps and make education equitable in our state. A big focus in our state, and it’s even stated in our ESSA plan that we sent in to the federal government, is to prioritize and advance equity to reach all of our student populations. We need to teach teachers and teach principals different methodologies to reach different populations of students. Without those dollars, it’s going to put a huge wall up in progressing down that path.

Korcinsky: In the state of Pennsylvania, our governor had proposed a significant increase to the overall education budget, which has yet to be determined. In terms of the Title II, I believe that most of our legislators have supported us and signed on. I know specifically that Senator [Robert] Casey’s office did sign on to support that. It’s a challenge monetarily in terms of budgetary constraints because of the amount of time and resources it takes to implement these assessments; it also takes away from instructional time, and it really creates a challenge not just for principals and teachers, but for school boards and superintendents and communities to meet some of those requirements. There’s a high level of frustration when those funding dollars don’t make it and we have to find a way to meet the criteria of ESSA. We are also looking at the possibility of using other forms of assessment to satisfy or meet the requirements of ESSA, which could be anything from NIMS (National Institute of Metalworking Skills) to NOCTI (National Occupational Competency Testing Institute) to the PSAT, SAT. I believe the Department of Education of Pennsylvania has allowed schools the opportunity to apply to use other assessments as long as they’re approved. 

Maley: Unfortunately, Illinois is quickly approaching a third year without a fully enacted state budget. K-12 has been fortunate in that we have seen a stand-alone K-12 budget the last two years; however, most school districts have seen significant delays in categorical funding for transportation and special education. As we speak, our General Assembly is in a 10-day special session to hopefully finalize a budget before the end of our fiscal year. There is real concern this year, though, that schools closing early will be used as the leverage to finally get something done. All of this makes the relative certainty of federal funding that much more important. Many districts rely on Title funding to hire staff for class-size reductions and Medicaid funding to serve kids with special needs. 

Federal, State, and Local Funding 

Levin-Epstein: How much of ESSA is supposed to be funded by the federal government versus state and local funding?

George: I am not certain that phrasing the question that way is an appropriate way to look at it. In order to meet many of the requirements in ESSA, the funding burden will fall greatly upon the local school districts because of the proposed budget that has been put forward by the U.S. Department of Education. Implementation takes money. There’s never enough, and I guess that’s not a good way to say it, but there are really never enough dollars because of unfunded state and federal mandates. In the state of Oregon, we’re in an economic upturn over the past two or three years, but our state budget faces an approximately $2 billion gap from funding at steady levels from the past year. My school district alone faces a $3.5 million shortfall [despite the fact that] the economy is booming, and there are a number of reasons for that: contract rollups, retirement system rollups, insurance increases.

Korcinsky: I agree. I couldn’t give you a dollar value or even a percentage of federal vs. state vs. local. The local school districts in Pennsylvania do carry the lion’s share of the budget. The taxpayers in Pennsylvania shoulder that. The federal dollars would be a small percentage compared to what the state government reimburses the school districts or affords the school districts. The local school districts, I would say, and this is a rough estimate, probably carry somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the total budgetary liabilities for running a school. In terms of ESSA, you could take out just the Title II dollars, but there again, [it’s] a very small fraction compared to what the local schools have to support.

Maley: Illinois has similar issues. Part of the school funding and state budget argument is the overreliance on property taxes to fund schools. With a diverse state such as ours, there are districts that may only receive a flat grant from the state, since they are almost fully funded through local sources, while there are others that are mostly reliant on the state due to low property values. We have been supportive of an effort to change the funding formula to properly account for a district’s local capacity and their needs, but that too is a point of contention at the statehouse. We have advocated to our congressional delegation to fund ESSA as it was intended to be funded, which includes Title II, at the appropriate amount to implement the law with fidelity.

Levin-Epstein: What happens when there are certain requirements under the statute, and you simply don’t have the funding?

Korcinsky: As in probably most schools across America, you become very creative because you must meet the requirements. With all the unfunded or underfunded mandates that come at us frequently, we become very creative. In the state of Pennsylvania, that is passed on to the taxpayer on an annual, or possibly a referendum case, of raising taxes to meet the requirements. And it’s not just looked at in terms of testing, but all those resources and supports that aid in preparing for that testing. Maybe an additional ELL or ESL teacher, or maybe substitute teachers to support the professional development for all those teachers. There could be several challenges to our existing budget with that dollar figure. For example, the cost of the remediation program is generally passed on to the taxpayer, and if not, and if we don’t raise our taxes and our budget is balanced, then what happens is, there’s a reduction in force. They have to meet the budgetary demands, and so there are layoffs or furloughs or curtailments, or programs are cut. Art, music, things of that nature would then be curtailed to meet those requirements for ESSA.

George: Let’s shape it this way: In 2012, the National Center for Education Statistics found that for funding education in the United States, 44 percent of the dollars were provided through local governance. Forty-five to 46 percent of the total were provided by state governments, and 10.1 percent of the dollars spent on education across the United States was provided by the federal government. Under ESSA and No Child Left Behind, we’ve been required to develop and implement an accountability system K-12 that requires standardized testing. This was just one mandate! Because of this, our state decided to join the Smarter Balance Consortium to develop and implement Smarter Balance Assessment. We couldn’t use that 10 percent to fund it and didn’t receive any additional funding to do so. What that means to my school, when the dollars are cut or reallocated or not provided, is bigger class sizes, fewer teachers, closed programs, and cut school days.

Maley: I think I can speak best to state mandates, but the concept applies to federal mandates as well. I would imagine most schools and districts do the best they can to comply, as was stated previously. A program we’ve implemented in Illinois, through our association, is the Ed Leaders Network ( It is an online professional development and learning community. Thanks to support from our state board of education, the service is available to all educators statewide. We host all of the state-mandated trainings, as well as an entire library of professional development topics delivered via webinar, on demand. This has allowed districts to train their staff at no cost, instead of sending staff to workshops, hiring speakers, or finding substitute teachers. “Doing more with less” has definitely become everyone’s mantra, but we’ve tried to make sure that quantity doesn’t impact quality. Several districts have also sought referendums and increased local support in the last few years. One district near Springfield threatened to cut all athletics, music, and other extracurriculars without passage of a referendum. Their referendum passed.

The Role of Secondary School Principals

Levin-Epstein: How active are secondary school principals in the discussion about how to deal with ESSA implementation?

Korcinsky: I would say that is a challenge. They are involved. I know that the Pennsylvania Principals Association is an active participant in meeting with the Department of Education of Pennsylvania and the individuals through the legislators that will help shape those decisions. In terms of the individual principals, there is, at least at the federal level, [NASSP’s] Federal Grassroots Network. I know we have a few principals that join in on that. It is up to the individual principal to reach out to their local legislators or even their federal legislators and to share their views on how it impacts [their school], whether it’s urban, suburban, rural, large, small. I would say it’s a very mixed opportunity and very situational. The movement of this happens sometimes so quickly that we will put out advocacy alerts, and it sometimes is very difficult for principals to get a grasp on it because there’s so much change that is proposed, and they have a busy day. Principals are very busy, and advocacy is not one of their top priorities, but probably could be to help shape this. I know they are dealing with their local school boards and their superintendents, but in terms of working with state and federal legislators, it is very situational.

George: I agree with Mark on all of these points. Another thing to think about, though, is that the majority of administrators will only take the time to communicate and become involved when they are asked or invited to do so. We are busy! We’re enhancing and trying to greatly improve our efforts as a state executive board for our principals association to reach out more often to principals and to ask them to provide their feedback. Because unless we ask them for their feedback, all of the other things they have going on in their profession and in their jobs take priority. So, that communication is absolutely vital from our board’s position and standpoint. One more thing to remember is that we face local and state-level battles when it comes to governmental mandates, and those often become the priority and focus rather than federal legislation or policy. When we are talking about a much larger percentage of funding, those battles on the home front are more important than those battles in Washington, D.C. However, reaching out to principals, increasing awareness, and soliciting feedback are key to the growth and understanding of federal legislative impacts in our association. 

Maley: As the person who is usually making the “ask” for involvement, I agree with all previous points. Principals at all levels have a lot on their plate, so I try to be mindful about asking for help without taking too much of their time. Our state coordinator, Kevin Shelton, principal of Johnsburg High School; members of the grassroots network; and our state legislative chair, Daniel Booth, principal of Carbondale Community High School, are all secondary school principals. Daniel serves on the IBAM committee I mentioned before and represents the view of the building principal in these discussions. As John mentioned, often the state issues-especially the budget at the moment-take precedence and are more impactful to their day-to-day work.

Levin-Epstein: In terms of ESSA implementation, what two issues would you stress to principals to really pay attention to?

Korcinsky: From the Pennsylvania standpoint, I would say first would be the assessments and the impact upon students in achievement and the implementation time frame-how we meet the needs of both the state and federal governments. The second one would be about evaluation of staff and principals themselves. 

George: I concur with Mark on both points. The only other talking point or question to consider would be the support for private schools or charter schools under ESSA and the amount of dollars that are proposed to go in that direction, or the portability of those dollars. What will that mean to local education associations and districts? That could be a significant amount of money lost. In the state of Oregon, charter schools must be adopted and run under the auspices of the local education district. What kind of changes would occur there, in terms of state or local control of charter schools? Those questions must be asked and answered.

Maley: I completely agree with the suggestion to reach out to policymakers to provide evidence and stories from your district and school. This illustrates how their decisions affect kids. So, number one, I’d say stay engaged and build those relationships with your local legislators. We encourage our members to host legislators as “principal for a day” each October to coincide with National Principals Month. This has been a great opportunity for legislators to fully appreciate the demands of a building leader.
Number two is the summative designation of schools. We are concerned that Illinois’ plan designates a school as “underperforming” if one or more subgroups is performing at or below the “all students” level in the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools. Principals will have some hard work to do to keep morale high and staff focused on the successes of their kids, despite these designations. Jumping back to point one, feedback on the impact of these designations on morale among staff and kids will be a good point of discussion with policymakers.