December 18, 2015
On December 10, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a new iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed in 1965 to improve access to education for low income students. ESSA succeeds 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act in which the federal government’s role in education was significantly expanded, including the adoption of standardized student tests and other accountability measures of states’ education systems and their teachers. The new law allows states to set their own standards and accountability systems. ESSA dismantles federal accountability requiring schools to demonstrate academic progress through standardized test scores, and reduces the legal authority of the secretary of education from influencing state policy in such things as Common Core implementation. The law still requires annual and reading testing in grades 3-8 and states must report scores by race, income and disability.
The ESSA bill passed with large bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and education advocates have been largely positive about the newly passed law. ESSA includes thirteen arts-friendly provisions that help improve theatre and other arts education availability for all students. Most importantly, the law asserts that arts education should be part of the well-rounded education of all students. The “well-rounded” language replaces NCLB’s core definition of academic areas, and helps articulate where and how theatre educators and advocates can improve access and the quality of theatre and other arts in schools in the various Title areas, including Title I, an important funding source for high poverty schools.
Educational Theatre Association Executive Director Julie Cohen Theobald said the law offered exciting new possibilities for theatre education in the coming years. “What is most exciting about ESSA is its inclusion of the arts as part of the well-rounded education of every child,” she said. “As EdTA begins to work on expanding diversity among our student and teacher members, this is particularly timely and welcome. Further, with the law’s emphasis on state and local decision making in how students are educated, our strong state chapters are ideally positioned to mobilize their members to use ESSA to help them advocate for their programs.”
Specific arts education provisions in ESSA include:
- arts and music education as subject areas within a well-rounded education, therefore affirming eligibility for Title I funds
- the Assistance for Arts Education fund, a dedicated national competitive grant opportunity that schools and community-based organizations can apply for
- state-administered Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, that allow local education agencies to apply for funds that integrate the arts into STEM learning programs
- 21st Century Community Learning Center funding that arts education are specified as eligible for support under "expanded learning time" provisions for after-school, out of school, and summer learning programs
- more flexible accountability in reading and math, with states allowed to incorporate more varied measures of student success into their accountability plans, such as arts classroom tools like student engagement, portfolios and project based-assessments.
For an in-depth analysis of the Every Student Succeeds Act, see EdTA’s ESSA Guide to Theatre Education Opportunities.