Conservative Group Focusing on ESSA Expands Reach

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett leads a new group formed to push for accountability, high standards, local control, and school choice.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett leads a new group formed to push for accountability, high standards, local control, and school choice.
—Michael Caulfield/AP-File

State legislative leaders among latest recruits

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Among various players like the teachers' unions looking to influence the Every Student Succeeds Act at the state level, a group led by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett is seeking to make its mark.

Conservative Leaders for Education, which formed in July to push for accountability, high academic standards, local control, and school choice under ESSA, officially announced Oct. 24 that it had signed up four state lawmakers and a state school board member as new members in five states: Alabama, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Joining the Roster

The new members of the organization are:

• Colorado state Sen. Owen Hill;

• Alabama state school board member Mary Scott Hunter;

• Ohio state Sen. Peggy Lehner;

• Wisconsin state Sen. Luther Olsen; and

• Nevada state Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury.

All are Republicans. And all, except for Hunter, are leaders of their respective legislative education committees. Including the members announced in July, the group can count nine total state officials as members.

In an interview, Bennett, the group's chairman, said it wouldn't be writing model legislation. But he said the participating lawmakers would share bills they are working on, as well as thoughts on which policy approaches might work well in their states and which might run into problems. Conservative Leaders for Education, he said, is looking for "agents of policy change" in statehouses when it comes to ESSA.

"We're going about this with all deliberate speed. We're being very careful about the people we're selecting," said Bennett, who served as President Ronald Reagan's education secretary from 1985 to 1988. "These are all people that are very committed to the issues."

Bennett said he had discussed the group's work with several well-known and like-minded players in the K-12 policy world, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Thomas B. Fordham President Chester E. "Checker" Finn, and Center for Education Reform founder Jeanne Allen. None of those people, however, is formally involved with Conservative Leaders for Education at this point, Bennett said.

The group's expansion illustrates the jockeying going on to shape how states approach school improvement, transparency, and accountability under ESSA. The measure gives state lawmakers significantly more power over those decisions than they've had in recent years. Back in July, Bennett said he was worried that not only do Democrats talk like they "own" ESSA, but "in many ways, they have owned it."

The National Education Association is pushing its members hard to make sure states don't make just a few tweaks under ESSA and call it a day. And the union is praising states that have adopted a "dashboard" approach to accountability that doesn't require a single, summative rating for schools. That approach might not get the approval of the U.S. Department of Education, however.

Vol. 36, Issue 11, Page 15

Published in Print: November 2, 2016, as Conservative Group Focusing on ESSA Expands Reach
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