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Civil Rights Groups to Congress: Betsy DeVos is Approving Plans That Violate ESSA

By Alyson Klein — April 10, 2018 2 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is approving plans that fly in the face of the Every Student Succeeds Act’s protections for vulnerable children, according to more than a dozen civil rights groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The groups sent a letter Tuesday to Democratic and Republican leaders on the House and Senate education committees asking them to tell DeVos to stop approving “unlawful” plans.

“We call on you to fulfill your role in ESSA’s implementation and to correct the Department of Education’s flawed approval of state plans that do not comply core equity provisions of the law,” the groups wrote to Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., as well as Reps. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.

This is far from the first time that the civil rights community—and Democratic lawmakers—have questioned DeVos’ approach to plan approval. The Alliance for Excellent Education, one of the 17 groups that signed off on the letter, put together a legal brief questioning whether some of the plans that DeVos has approved meet ESSA’s requirements. And both Murray and Scott have written letters to DeVos saying she is flouting the law.

The four leaders plan to meet with DeVos at some point to discuss Democrats’ concerns with plan approval.

For her part, the secretary said in an interview in February that she’s “only approving plans that comply with the law.” She said she’s asked her critics for specifics of where she’s crossing the line, but she said they haven’t provided any yet.

The civil rights groups say that DeVos is greenlighting plans that allow schools to get a high rating (say, an A) even if vulnerable group of kids, like English-language learners, are struggling. (Examples: Maryland and New Mexico.) And they argue she’s allowing states to use “super subgroups” which lump different groups of historically disadvantaged students together for accountability purposes. (Examples: Connecticut and Massachusetts.) The department, for its part, has said ESSA doesn’t require school ratings systems at all, so it would be federal overreach for the department to dictate what those systems look like. The civil rights groups dispute that interpretation of the law.

The civil rights groups are also unhappy that DeVos has allowed states like Indiana, Missouri, New Mexico, and Washington state to use the same definition for two categories of schools—"targeted support” and “additional targeted support"—that ESSA describes separately. (The law says states must flag schools for “additional targeted support” if subgroups of students are performing as badly as students in the worst schools in the state, and identify schools for “targeted support” if subgroups of students are “consistently underperforming.”) The department, though, said states can come up with any definition they want for “consistently underperforming.” So if states want to use the same definition for both categories, the feds can’t stop them, the department has argued.

Want a more extensive, nuanced explanation of what’s going on here? We unpacked the policy behind the civil rights’ groups arguments and the department’s response in exhaustive, wonky detail.

Image: Getty Images

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information:

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