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DeVos Feedback on Education Plans Defies Federal Law’s Intent, State Leaders Say

By Alyson Klein — June 16, 2017 3 min read
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This week, three states—Delaware, Nevada, and New Mexico—received official feedback from the U.S. Department of Education on their plans for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. And, the feds went a lot further than many guessed they would, given U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ rhetoric about local control, and the Trump administration’s own decision to ask states only for bare-bones information about their plans.

Now the Council of Chief State School Officers is expressing concern that some of the Trump Team’s feedback to states would actually go beyond the scope of the law.

Chris Minnich, the executive director of CCSSO, said in a statement that it’s part of the federal role to ask for more information from states so that it can enforce “statutory or regulatory provisions.”

But he added, “States have built systems to improve educational opportunities for kids and the Department’s feedback is too prescriptive in certain areas, and goes beyond the intent of the law.

In particular, Minnich is concerned with Delaware’s feedback. The department said the state’s student achievement goals weren’t ambitious enough. ESSA requires all states to set “ambitious long-term goals” for student achievement, but the word “ambitious” isn’t defined in the law. And the feds are prohibited under the law from telling states what goals they can or can’t pick.

Minnich is also worried that the department is seeking to restrict the use of science and social studies in rating schools academically. And he isn’t clear on why the department seems to suggest that states can’t use the Advanced Placement courses as a measure of college and career readiness, as Delaware, and at least a dozen other states want to do.

Minnich ended on a polite note, however. “That said, the feedback is part of the process in order to get to approval, and I’m confident with further clarification from the Department on these issues, states will be able to build the systems that best serve our nation’s students,” he said.

Delaware put out its own carefully worded statement, noting it spent a lot of time reaching out to educators and advocates about its application, and tried to develop an ESSA plan that worked for the state.

“We appreciate the feedback we received on Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Education and the opportunity to respond to the clarifying questions and comments,” said Alison May, a spokeswoman for the agency, in an email. “We spent a year developing our plan with the support and input of a comprehensive group of stakeholders, and we look forward to re-engaging with them to prepare answers and updates that will meet the requirements of federal authorities and the needs of our local community.”

Over at Fordham’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli is a lot more forceful about his concerns with the department’s decision making.

In the post, Petrilli suggests that Republicans on the Hill will likely “raise holy hell” over the letter.

So far, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an ESSA architect, said he is, “reviewing the department’s letters carefully, but I expect the secretary’s actions to be consistent with the law.”

It’s a big deal if, after that closer look, Alexander decides he’s unhappy with the way DeVos’ team handled Delaware’s application.

Alexander, after all, as the education chairman, put his own political capital on the line to help get DeVos confirmed. (She made it by the skin of her teeth, with Vice President Mike Pence voting to break a 50-50 tie after two GOP lawmakers, Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, voted against her.)

And his staff has been lending DeVos’ team a hand with other aspects of ESSA implementation, including crafting a template for states to use in submitting their plans.

Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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