Congress Weighs Federal Footprint as ESSA Rolls Out
Some of the first congressional oversight hearings about the Every Student Succeeds Act highlighted some of the divisions between lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Education over the best way to implement the new education law, especially when it comes to accountability and interventions in struggling schools.
Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. told House education committee members that the new flexibility in ESSA for states and districts is an appropriate shift in power. But he also made it clear that the Education Department will still have significant responsibilities to ensure that all students, particularly special populations and traditionally disadvantaged students, are well-served by new policies and approaches.
"At times, states and districts haven't lived up to their responsibility to serve all students well," King told lawmakers on Feb. 25.
However, committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., pressed King on whether he would adhere to both the letter of the law and the law's larger intent, which he stressed is, in many cases, to limit the Education Department's role under ESSA to providing guidance and support for states.
"We wanted new policies that would empower parents, teachers, and state and local education leaders," Kline said in discussing ESSA's main principles.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who led a separate Senate education committee hearing about ESSA on Feb. 23 at which King was not present, made similar points about the new policymaking power that the law gives states and districts.
The ESSA hearings took place against the backdrop of King's nomination by President Barack Obama to be education secretary. The Senate education committee is slated to further consider King's nomination on March 9.
King repeatedly stressed that as the department oversees the transition to the new law and develops relevant regulations, input from states, schools, and various other groups involved in education would be critical to the department's actions.
'The Law is Clear'
During the February hearing in the House, he told lawmakers that ESSA's requirements for disaggregating student data would make it especially important for states to make appropriate interventions in low-performing schools. He also stressed that it would be important for states to reconsider those interventions if necessary.
"We believe the law is clear, that states have a responsibility to close achievement gaps," King said.
He also said that states have the opportunity through ESSA to broaden the definition of "educational excellence" and consider new indicators of success, from social-emotional learning to civic engagement. And ESSA puts a high priority on key indicators, King noted, such as requiring states to identify and intervene in schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less.
But GOP lawmakers consistently pressured King on the portions of ESSA they say restrict or limit the Education Department's role in important accountability policies.
For example, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., a potential successor to Kline as the committee leader, told King that before ESSA's passage, states had lost the ability to make their own decisions about how to help low-performing schools. She pressed King on whether, under ESSA, the department would comply with the law's prohibitions on its role in determining these interventions. King said the department would.
And Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., expressed concern that the Education Department would still try to dictate to states how to handle their content standards and assessments.
"The federal government is in no way capable of knowing what works best for everyone," Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and the chairman of the House K-12 subcommittee, told King. However, several Democrats pushed back on the idea that the department should stay entirely in the backseat. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, said the department had the power to develop broad regulations and guide states and districts as they transition to the new law.
"It seems to me that they will need additional support and oversight from the department" in order to make the shift to ESSA, Hinojosa said.
In response to a question from Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., about overtesting, King responded that it will be important for states to help districts find and eliminate tests that are redundant or unhelpful.
"We don't want assessment to crowd out good instruction," he said.
At the Senate ESSA oversight hearings, state K-12 officials told lawmakers they were ready for their newfound policy power. Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said getting good data would be key to helping states make informed decisions about accountability. And he told Alexander that it would be realistic to expect that states have their plans for life under ESSA approved and ready to fully implement by the summer of 2017.
"It's also going to be giving us a chance to permanently engage people," including on issues not directly related to ESSA, Evers said.
Union leaders stressed to senators that schools needed significant time to adjust to ESSA, a pause from high-stakes testing and accountability policies, and sufficient resources to support teachers and address racial inequalities that often exist between schools based on their demographics.
"It's moving from test and punish to support and improve. And I think there's an opportunity to do that now," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
But not everyone was so sanguine that the new law, on its own, would lead to improved outcomes for students and schools.
"Recognizing the need for state and local decision-making does not, as some have suggested, mean that the only real role for the Department of Education is to cut checks," Kati Haycock, the CEO of the Education Trust, told senators.
Vol. 35, Issue 23, Page 15Published in Print: March 9, 2016, as Congress Mulling Federal Footprint As ESSA Rolls Out