Democrats on the Senate education committee used the confirmation hearing of President Donald Trump’s nominee for a top K-12 position to lambast U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Frank Brogan, the nominee for assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, will oversee implementation of ESSA if he is confirmed.
DeVos, argued Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been rubber-stamping ESSA plans, approving them even if they don’t comply with provisions in the law to protect vulnerable subgroups of students and fix low-performing schools. (So far, the department has approved ESSA plans for 33 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.)
“Now that the law is passed and beginning to be implemented, I am very concerned the Department of Education is approving state plans that do not comply with all of ESSA’s federal guardrails,” said Murray, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, at the Jan. 25 hearing.
But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, said he is pleased with the way DeVos is implementing the law, which passed with big bipartisan support in 2015.
“She is charting new territory—approving plans that give states dramatic new freedom to set goals and hold students accountable,” he said. “And I believe she is following the law—appropriately balancing the law’s flexibility and guardrails.”
Complexities in the Law
Murray ticked off a number of things in approved plans she finds problematic. She said the department has approved plans that allow schools to get the highest rating, an A, in their state’s school rating system—even if subgroups of students such as racial and ethnic minorities and those with disabilities are falling behind. Murray did not name the states, but sources have flagged problems with Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, and New Mexico.
ESSA doesn’t specifically say schools can’t get an A if the performance of subgroups of students is iffy. But the law does require states to base their ratings at least in part on subgroup performance on each indicator of the accountability system and to flag schools where any subgroup of students struggles for improvement, or “targeted” support.
And Murray isn’t happy that some of the approved plans use the same criteria for what’s supposed to be two separate groups of schools singled out for extra help: schools where subgroups are “consistently underperforming” (a term states get to define) and “chronically underperforming” (which ESSA defines as a school where subgroups of students are doing as badly as the students in the worst schools in the state). Delaware and Washington state both have that issue.
“I believe in this law and I’m not going to stop raising these issues until the department resolves them,” Murray said.
She noted that DeVos hasn’t appeared before the committee to testify on ESSA implementation. That’s a contrast, she said, to President Barack Obama’s last education secretary, John B. King Jr., who testified twice during the first year of ESSA implementation.
Other Democrats shared Murray’s qualms.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said the department hasn’t been consistent when it comes to the use of so-called “supersubgroups,” which combine groups like English-language learners, students in special education, and minority students into a larger group for accountability purposes. Civil rights advocates have said supersubgroups mask achievement gaps and are an ESSA no-no.
The department’s feedback letters to states on their ESSA plans raised questions about supersubgroups. But states were able to get them into their approved plans, including Alexander’s home state of Tennessee. The Volunteer State showed the department that more schools would be identified as needing extra help using supersubgroups than would be flagged otherwise.
Brogan, nominee for assistant secretary, didn’t commit to outlawing supersubgroups—or anything else.
Instead, Brogan said, “I’m working under the absolute belief that the plans that have been approved were compliant with the law.” He said he’d be able to gather more information once he is confirmed. As a nominee, he explained, he isn’t allowed to get involved in issues such as plan approval.
Brogan’s own background played second fiddle to the ESSA concerns.
He has been a state schools chief, lieutenant governor, principal, teacher, and school superintendent. As Florida’s state chief in the mid-to-late 1990s, Brogan championed higher academic standards. And he supported using tax dollars for private schools.
Brand-new Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., seized on Brogan’s support for vouchers, noting that in Alabama private schools were formed to help white families get around racial segregation. Jones said he doesn’t want to see schools like those getting federal money.
Brogan said he’s merely in favor of more choices for parents.
“I have no interest in privatizing the public education system, which serves obviously the lion’s share of children today,” Brogan said.
Despite the fireworks on ESSA, Brogan appears headed for confirmation. One promising sign: He was introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat, who called him a friend.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Democrats Use Hearing to Hammer DeVos on ESSA Plans