Senators have held just two hearings on the main federal education law during the Trump administration, and in the latest, lawmakers primarily focused on how states were treating disadvantaged students, how they were handling newfound policy flexibility, and whether money from Washington should be used to arm educators.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was notable for her absence at the Sept. 25 hearing. But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, defended her approval of states’plans, as well as her decision to leave it up to states whether to use federal aid to pay for guns in schools.
Although ESSA passed Congress with broad bipartisan support in 2015, there’s been a long-standing and often robust dispute over how DeVos and her Education Department are handling the law.
Civil rights groups and top Democrats for K-12 policy have argued DeVos is approving plans that flout the law when it comes to school ratings and how low-performing schools are identified. However, DeVos, with Alexander’s support, has said she’s only approved plans that comport with ESSA.
Stating that he had met with DeVos and U.S. Department of Education lawyers to go over the ESSA plans
she had approved, Alexander said at the committee hearing, “I believe that she is exactly following the law in those cases. ... I think [members of Congress]have a difference of opinion in reading the law.”
Summing up the view of her peers from Delaware and Nebraska at the hearing, South Carolina schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, a Republican, told senators that, “Without the flexibility of ESSA, these triumphs that we know are going to happen could not be.”
But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the panel, said DeVos had ignored the will of Democrats who voted for the law because of its protections for vulnerable students. She said the secretary had signed off on some states’ ESSA plans that fail to properly differentiate results between some or all of different student subgroups, for example.
“A school may look like it is succeeding, even if all the African-American students or students with disabilities, for example, are falling behind,” Murray said. “Our federal education law should not be focused solely on making states’ lives easier.”
Democrats joined in attacking DeVos for her position on the possibility of federal education money going to guns.
Ever since news emerged that DeVos was considering allowing ESSA block-grant money under Title IV to arm school staff, Democrats and some education advocates have blasted the idea, calling it a waste of money that would not make schools safer and would violate the law. Ultimately, DeVos stated that she would take no position on whether schools could use ESSA aid for guns, leaving it up to states and districts to decide.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., called the notion of arming educators “the dumbest idea that I think I’ve ever heard in the educational field.”
And Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., perhaps the Senate’s most vigorous advocate for gun control, argued that Title IV’s language regarding “weapons-free schools” made it clear that congressional intent was for the money not to go to guns.
But Alexander essentially took DeVos’ side. Although he said at the hearing that, “I am not a fan of arming teachers,” he noted that the law did let states and districts make their own decisions about how to spend the money.
Data and Accountability
None of the three state chiefs at the hearing voiced support for using federal money to arm teachers at the panel. They were more eager to talk about their accountability plans and other under-the-hood ESSA issues.
Superintendents stressed that while they like the room to run provided by ESSA, they had taken great pains to involve local communities and others with a stake in their school systems when they crafted new accountability systems and priorities for K-12 systems.
Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska’s nonpartisan education commissioner, highlighted his state’s new ESSA goal of cutting in half the share of students not scoring “proficient” on state exams over the next 10 years. He also talked up Nebraska’s efforts to ensure a stronger teacher pipeline to underserved communities.
“We now see the federal government as a strong partner” in state-level work, Blomstedt told lawmakers. “ESSA has allowed us to better align federal programs ... that would not have been allowed under No Child Left Behind without significant waivers from that law.”
And Spearman said ESSA had led the state to hire “transformation coaches” that would serve as boots on the ground in schools. The state had also recently shifted its focus to help more students get involved in career and technical education programs.
It wasn’t all happy talk. Susan Bunting, Delaware’s nonpartisan state chief, noted that Delaware’s initial plan to include science and social studies test results in academic-achievement indicators under ESSA was rejected by DeVos. (The state ultimately included those results in measures of school quality instead.)
But she did say that under the law, the state would seek to pilot evidence-based school improvement strategies in different schools and then share successful ones with different schools based on their demographics and other contextual information.
A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2018 edition of Education Week as Guns, Disadvantaged Students Take Center Stage at ESSA Hearing