Florida Folds Waiver Requests Into ESSA Plan, Infuriating Civil Rights Activists

By Daarel Burnette II — September 26, 2017 3 min read
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Instead of submitting a series of waiver requests it had been preparing, Florida’s department of education last week turned in an accountability plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act that fails to include provisions required under the law that deal with testing, English-language learners, and achievement gaps.

The state is gambling that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will allow for Florida to bypass mandates to identify schools with significant achievement gaps between student subgroups; include ELL students’ proficiency scores in the states’ accountability system; and provide some students the state assessment in their native language. (Florida doesn’t want to do any of the above).

Advocates for the state’s large Hispanic, black and ELL population call the plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Education “illegal” and an affront to the spirit of the law, which aims to close the nation’s achievement gap and assure poor and minority students equal access to a quality education. They have in recent weeks mobilized for the federal government to reject the plan and sent the state’s congressional delegation a petition signed by more than 90 state civil rights and ELL organizations.

The Florida education department’s communication team, which has been tight-lipped to the media about its ESSA planning process and thinking, said in an e-mail to Education Week that the state is confident the plan will pass scrutiny with DeVos. A spokeswoman for the state agency didn’t comment specifically on why the department decided not to follow through on draft waiver requests allowing the state to avoid those requirements.

DeVos has now approved at least two states’ plans with no waivers attached that don’t comply with the law, according to many policy analysts. Connecticut’s plan was approved even though it incorporates English-language proficiency into the academic growth component of its plan rather than as a separate component as required by ESSA. And Tennessee’s plan was approved although it folds several minority groups into one category despite the law’s bar on the use of so-called “super-subgroups.”

Similarly, DeVos said in an interview with Education Week that, regarding ESSA, states should “not ... err on the side of caution, but to really push and go up to the line, test how far it takes to go over it. "

Originally, Florida planned to ask DeVos for several waivers from large swaths of the law. Obtaining a waiver from the law is a cumbersome and contentious process that can lead to years of state vs. federal battles, as several did under the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA’s predecessor. Some states submitted still-to-be-approved waivers to the Education Department along with their ESSA plans, none of them as extensive as Florida’s.

But in the waning days of its planning process, Florida apparently took the language from its waiver requests and pasted it into the plan itself.

In its plan, the state says that assessments in students’ native language would “impede” students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge and that accountability systems focused on minority subgroups takes attention away from students most in need of assistance.

Local and national civil rights advocates fear Florida’s plan could set a disturbing precedent for other states. That’s why they’ve made known to members of Congress and DeVos that they believe the plan should be turned down.

“If I were Betsy DeVos and wanted to keep my job, I would not so offend those who fund my agency and therefore determine my longevity by passing a plan that flies in the face of what they said must be done,” said Rosa Castro Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Florida’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter. “These are not iffy things Florida is trying to do. This is black and white and stark requirements of the law.”

Nearly one out of every 10 students in Florida classifies as an ELL student, one of the largest such populations in the country. The state is bracing for a wave of more immigrants from Puerto Rico after the recent hurricane that devastated the island.

Statewide, ELL students’ proficiency rates on math and English/language arts exams has hovered in the single digits. Advocates have for decades complained about the state’s low standards for ELL teachers, the rapid racial resegregation of schools, and a system that allows students to languish in isolated, underresourced ELL classrooms for years at a time.

Democratic congressional leaders said in a letter last week that DeVos has “failed to adequately address several shortcomings” in state plans.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.