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The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) can provide a new opportunity for states to engage in initiatives to strengthen their public schools.

After the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), states assumed the role of supervisors of compliance, rather than initiators of change. ESSA will shift considerable responsibility for education policy and accountability from the federal government back to the states. Now states will have freedom to alter teacher evaluation systems as they see fit, and will have greater freedom in how they develop accountability systems and how they use the results of tests.

As we embark on this new era of state responsibility and reform, it is important to step back and evaluate the extent to which each state is already supporting (or undermining) its public schools. Such analysis would provide a glimpse into the direction in which states are likely to use their new freedom under ESSA.

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The Network for Public Education’s new report entitled “Valuing Public Education: A 50 State Report Card,” provides a window into what policies and practices we can expect from our states. It evaluates how well each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia are presently supporting their public schools, based on objective and measurable factors identified by the Network for Public Education and a research team at the University of Arizona.

“With the end of NCLB, states have a golden opportunity. Let’s hope they take it.”

The report card gives high grades to states for embracing policies that help make their public schools vibrant and strong — a well-trained, professional teaching force, adequate and equitable funding wisely spent, and social conditions that give all students a better opportunity for educational success. And it lowers the grades of states that have embraced privatization and rely on testing to set graduation standards, promotion standards and teacher accountability.

This is how the report card works: It evaluates states based on six different criteria related to their laws and policies. The report card also considers the measurable effects those laws and policies have on schools. For example, although there are no longer laws that allow racial segregation, a state’s housing and school choice laws affect the student demographics of schools.

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The six criteria are: 1) rejection of high stakes testing, 2) the professionalization of teaching, 3) rejection of public school privatization 4) financial support 5) how well taxpayers resources are spent and 6) children’s chances for success. With the assistance of Francesca Lopez, Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, NPE identified 29 measureable factors that guided the ratings of the six. Dr. Lopez’s team then worked to find the best, most contemporary sources of information, created a 0-4 scale for ratings and then evaluated each state on the 29 factors. The factors that comprised each criterion were averaged to create a letter grade. The six letter grades were then averaged to create an overall grade for the state. An interactive map provides an easy way to see how states compare. (The sources used, the manner in which scores were derived, and the research that explains why these factors are important for school success are all included in the report and its appendix).

The resulting grades are disappointing, with an average state grade of a “D.” Unfortunately, state policies and laws enacted since the beginning of the No Child Left Behind Act have steered states towards less effective policies, and even though our economy has recovered, school funding has not caught up.

For example, prior to NCLB, nearly every state would have earned a grade of “A” on the criterion, No High Stakes Testing. This year, only five states earned a grade of “A.” Likewise, grades in the category “Life Chances for Students” are lower than they would have been a decade ago, due to rising proportions of students living in poverty and increased racial isolation in schools. And when it comes to school finance, our national grade is a dismal “D.”

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Still there are bright spots. Seven states have rejected charters, vouchers and other “reforms” that undermine community public schools. Three states — Alabama, Montana and Nebraska — earned “As” for their rejection of both high stakes testing and privatization. No state, however, received high grades across the board. For example, although Alabama scored high in resistance to high stakes testing and privatization, its schools are severely underfunded and far too many students live in poverty or near poverty in the state.

The three highest scoring states — Iowa, Nebraska and Vermont — were among a small group of states that were not Race to the Top winners (Vermont did not even apply) and all three were resistant to seeking ESEA waivers. Because they are comfortable charting their own course and supporting their public schools, these states should be able to quickly adapt to the new freedom given by ESSA.

This report card reminds us that there are no “silver bullets” when it comes to improving schools. However, if we are willing to invest time and money guided by the right values, we will see steady progress for our public schools and our nation’s children. We hope that the citizens of each state reflect on areas where their state needs to improve, and promote those reforms that will result in a better grade next year. With the end of NCLB, states have a golden opportunity. Let’s hope they take it.

Carol Burris is the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), a non-profit advocacy group founded in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody to share information and research on vital issues that concern the future of public education. Previously Burris was principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York and was the co-author of the Hechinger Core Debate column.

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