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Every Student Succeeds Act

Assume You Can Do What You Like Under ESSA, Sen. Alexander Tells Ky. Lawmakers

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 12, 2016 2 min read
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How should states approach the Every Student Succeeds Act? U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., had clear advice for state lawmakers on Monday: Assume you can do as you please, and if the U.S. Department of Education shoots down your ideas without a clear rationale, don’t take it lying down.

Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, emphasized that message during a public hearing held by the Kentucky legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education. The senator, one of the architects of the law, also said that when states put together their ESSA plans and tackle thorny questions, they should consult the “new coalition” of groups that backed ESSA and helped get it passed, from state leaders and local school boards to the national teachers’ unions.

But Alexander devoted many of his remarks to playing up states’ authority under the law and downplaying the Education Department’s overall role.

“Don’t assume you can’t do anything,” Alexander told the lawmakers.

And in a similar vein, he said that if the Education Department rejects Kentucky’s state ESSA plan without a clear rationale, “You can take the department to court, and I hope that you do. I hope that you don’t have to. We’ll have a new administration [in 2017].”

Here’s how the senator dealt with a few other topics:

• As he has before, Alexander said the department’s official draft supplemental money rule, which requires federal money to be used in addition to and not in place of state and local dollars, is a bad idea.

“I’m going to do all I can to oppose it. I hope you will too,” he said.

Essentially, Alexander believes the department doesn’t have the legal authority to do what it wants to do here.

Remember that Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. has said his department’s proposed supplemental-money plan, while not a cure-all for resource inequity in schools, is a big step forward in trying to ensure that poor students receive a greater share of state and local resources. In fact, the department said the proposal would shift up to $2 billion in new state and local money for disadvantaged students.

• While he mostly criticized the role of Washington in education, in response to a question about the proper federal role in K-12, Alexander did highlight the importance of ensuring that certain tests are administered, and that the results are published and broken down by various subgroups. But when it comes to developing and implementing strategies to help low-performing schools, Alexander emphasized where the Education Department’s role ends: “While you’re required to identify the schools [in need of improvement] in order to get the federal money, what you do with the schools is up to you.”

Alexander talked with Kentucky lawmakers at about the same time that King departed from Washington on a weeklong bus tour of American schools on Monday.

Image capture of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., from the Sept. 12, 2016 Kentucky Joint Education Committee hearing.

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