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Ed. Dept. Official Hasn’t Read ESSA Carefully, Sen. Alexander Says

By Alyson Klein — July 13, 2017 3 min read
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Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the main architects of the Every Student Succeeds Act, thinks Jason Botel—the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, and one of the education department’s key point people on ESSA—should take a closer look at the law he’s been charged with implementing.

“I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully,” Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, said in an interview. “The heart of the entire law ... was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.”

The technical, but important back story: Alexander was referring to a feedback letter Botel sent to Delaware on its ESSA plan, telling the state that it hadn’t been “ambitious” enough in setting long-term goals for student achievement, sparking wonky outrage inside the Beltway and beyond.

The education chairman noted in an interview that ESSA includes language specifically prohibiting the U.S. secretary of education from telling states what their goals can or can’t be—and that 85 senators voted to approve the new law.

Alexander wasn’t happy when he saw Delaware’s initial feedback letter, but withheld his fire, at least publicly. In fact, he thought that the issue had been resolved when the department posted a “frequently asked questions” document making it clear that the feedback to states on their plans should be taken as mere suggestions and not a list of demands from the department. “I think the secretary acted quickly and responsibly to try to correct,” the problem, he said.

So why is Alexander speaking out now? He opened the New York Times recently and saw that Botel had been quoted saying that, because ESSA doesn’t explain exactly what “ambitious” means with respect to state student achievement goals, it’s up to the secretary to define it for states.

That doesn’t jibe with Alexander’s understanding of the law. “Not only did we not authorize the Department of Education to define the word ambition, we specifically prohibited it,” Alexander said. “That’s what the law says, in plain terms.”

And the education chairman is also unhappy that DeVos has told some states that they may not be able to use Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors courses to measure college-and-career readiness.

More broadly, Alexander wants to send a message that ESSA, which sought to return control over K-12 policy to the states, means an end to the bureaucratic back-and-forth that defined the state-federal relationship in the No Child Left Behind Act era.

“I want to nip in the bud the idea that somehow it’s business as usual in Washington,” Alexander said.

Alexander’s critique is no small thing. The education chairman, himself a former education secretary and one of the most -senior K-12 policymakers in the country, helped shepherd DeVos through a bruising and divisive confirmation process. And his staff has been lending Botel and other department staff a hand with ESSA implementation.

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman declined to comment on the senator’s remarks.

Importantly, Botel is technically a deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. He hasn’t been officially nominated for the role by the White House, which Alexander acknowledged has been slow to fill slots at the Education Department. He also said that the Democrats in Congress have been sluggish in approving the administration’s picks.

So would Alexander be willing to confirm Botel to his post permanently if the White House nominates him? No clear answer there. The education chairman said he would “ask [Botel] a lot of questions. I would suggest he read the law.” But he added, “my goal is not to threaten him here.”

He added, “I just think we’re in this exciting time when every state has a chance to be pioneers and to think afresh. We tried to liberate them with this new law, and now we have language coming out from the Department of Education that suggests they better slow down because the department is going to start telling them what to do again, playing ‘Mother may I?’ And I want to stop that before it starts.”

Reminder: So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have turned in plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. About half have received feedback from the department so far. The agency has 120 days from the time their applications were deemed complete to give a yay or nay on the plans. Another 33 states are slated to turn in their applications later this fall.

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