As state governments work to build new teacher and school accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act, members of a newly formed coalition of prominent education lobbying groups want to make sure the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t overstep its authority by tagging on additional requirements to the law and misinterpreting its text.
The ESSA Implementation Network includes the National Governors Association, the National PTA, and the nation’s largest two teachers unions. The network’s main mission will be to guard states’ flexibility under the new law and fend off federal intrusion.
“ESSA replaces a top-down accountability and testing regime with an inclusive system based on collaborative state and local innovation,” the coalition said in a letter earlier this month addressed to acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “For this vision to become a reality, we must work together to closely honor congressional intent. ESSA is clear: Education decision-making now rests with states and districts, and the federal role is to support and inform those decisions.”
The group said that state departments, while drafting their application for federal dollars this fall, will ask the U.S. Department of Education several technical questions about the language of the law. Among them: What qualifies as a “evidence-based” school turnaround? What is a “qualified teacher”?
While the law is barely two months old, state education and political leaders are looking for more detail about technical details in the law, said Stephen Parker, the NGA’s legislative director of education and workforce. It’s at these moments, the group worries, that the department may attempt to make its own interpretations that veer from the law’s intent.
In the department’s preliminary responses to questions about aspects of the new law, “a lot of states and local districts are receiving additional language, words on top of the federal law,” said Parker. Some in the states are concerned the department will be looking for ways to “augment language in the law and add additional requirements. All of our groups are open to discussion with the department about what we want to do, but the law should stand alone. Additional requirements aren’t appropriate.”
At Thursday’s Senate education committee confirmation hearing on King’s nomination to be secretary, senators asked him about the department’s role in the coming months as they work with states to craft their accountability plans.
King recognized states’ and local districts’ newly assumed rights under the law, but pointed out that the law also provides “guardrails” that protect black and Latino students and those with disabilities.
“We are a civil rights agency enforcing a civil rights law,” King said.
In addition to the NGA, the network is made up of the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National School Boards Association, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National PTA.
At the NGA’s winter meeting on Feb. 21, the leaders of the groups met in a bland room in the basement of the JW Marriott in Washington to talk with dozens of the nation’s attending governors about how they would implement ESSA.
Shortly after the NGA meeting, the governors met with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee, who told them to use the weight of the newly formed coalition to push back against anything that hints at federal intrusion in writing new regulations. That includes any federal mandate, statutory waiver, regulatory peer review, or accountability plan approval, Alexander said.
“Just say no if you don’t like it,” he said.
While the organizations have starkly contrasting viewpoints on what should happen inside the nation’s schoolhouses, they all believe local and state leaders are best suited to answer those questions. It’s a point their leaders came to realize during several encounters on Capitol Hill in the run-up to ESSA passage and signing.
At the urging of Alexander, the groups decided to unite under one umbrella, according to Parker.
“ESSA’s success will ultimately be determined by how well we implement the law together,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said during this week’s Senate ESSA oversight hearing, according to his prepared remarks. “The state and local ESSA Implementation Network will not only allow governors to partner with teachers, principals, parents, and state legislators to guarantee smooth implementation at the federal level, but it will lay a foundation for similar coalitions to emerge in each state.”
Noticeably absent from the coalition is the Council of Chief State School Officers. The executive director of that group, Chris Minnich, said Sunday that the CCSSO has already voiced its opinion that the federal government maintain a small role in education policy and said it will be working with the Education Department to help interpret the law for its members.
In the coming months, the coalition plans to meet with members of Congress, the Education Department, and may a national summit among its members.
In order for this law to succeed, there is going to have to be true collaboration where unlikely partners are going to have to sit down at the same tables,” said Mary Kusler, the National Education Association’s director of government relations. “In some cases, they’re going to have to continue to sit down at the same table when it gets tough, because this is what we saw members of Congress do to allow this law to happen.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.