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Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Architect Q&A: Rep. Robert C. ‘Bobby’ Scott, D-Va.

By Alyson Klein — June 10, 2016 5 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act turns six months old Friday. Back in April, Politics K-12’s Alyson Klein sat down with ESSA’s Democratic architects to talk about its development and a bit about early implementation. (These interviews took place before the proposed ESSA accountability regulations were released.)

Check out our interview with Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the education committee here. And look for interviews with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, and

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, on Monday.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation with Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Va. Scott had just stepped into the role of ranking member, the top Democrat, on the House education panel, at the beginning of 2015, when the bill that became ESSA was just beginning to percolate. For clarity, some answers are paraphrased and Scott’s exact remarks placed in quotations.

What was different this time around? Why did reauthorization get off the ground this time?

Everybody wanted a bill. ... I think it was clear in the House that the [Republican bill] was not going to get bipartisan support.

Did the Republicans try to work with you?

Scott’s short answer: not at first, even though his relationship with Kline remained cordial. “We maintained conversations with the chairman, but his conference was insisting on a bill that couldn’t [be signed and enacted]. And if it got passed by the Congress, then the president was going to veto it,” Scott said.

The original House bill, he added, “essentially stripped the ability to ascertain whether there’s an achievement gap, if you have one you didn’t have to do anything about it. And then they revised the [Title I] formula to literally take money from the low-income areas and give it to the high-income areas.”

I know this law isn’t the one you would have written on your own. Did you stay at the negotiating table because you were worried about what the next administration might have done with [Elementary and Secondary Education] reauthorization?

“You know you have a good administration now, and so if you can get something done, that’s fine, but I didn’t feel any pressure to accept a bad bill just because we had a Democratic administration. ... I could have been comfortable with a Clinton administration. And just looking forward, when we passed the bill, Donald Trump [was] not the leading Republican.”

Were you worried when Republicans in the Senate put testing on the table by holding hearings on the issue early on in the process?

No, was the short answer. “I don’t think they could pass the bill without Democratic support,” Scott said. “We were just not going to have a bill that did not reasonably ascertain what the achievement gap is.”

The National Education Association was working with Republicans as ESSA was under construction. They were more closely aligned to some extent with Republicans than Democrats. Was that awkward for you?

“I always got along with the NEA,” Scott said. And he pointed out that both unions, NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed the bill.

A lot of people took a look at ESSA and said this is a step back on federal accountability. What’s your take?

Scott said he didn’t think that was a bad thing, a top-down approach to intervening in schools hadn’t been working well. “The prescription in No Child Left Behind, if you ascertain [an] achievement gap, there were very specific steps that had to be taken,” he said of ESSA’s predecessor.

And those interventions didn’t always, work well, he added. Allowing students in schools that missed achievement targets to transfer to another school, “didn’t do anything about the problem. To have children who are succeeding in school have the choice to leave doesn’t address whatever the cause of the problem was,” he said. “And, in fact [under NCLB] you [could] give supplemental services to students without covering the students that failed. The federal specific steps that need to be taken were poorly designed to focus on the problem.”

“What we did was we did not compromise at all on the objective” that you have to measure and fix achievement gaps, he said. “We just told the states you have to get the job done and they have the authority to figure out how to do it.”

Some civil rights groups endorsed the bill, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. What did you make of that?

“If you look at their letter in opposition to [the House bill] and the list of things they had concerns about ... all of [their concerns] were [addressed]... We didn’t compromise on the core requirements we went in with,” including annual testing, requiring interventions in schools with low-performing subgroups of students, and not allowing for Title I portability, which would have allowed federal dollars for disadvantaged students to follow a student to the school of their choice.

Does any part of you worry that the law goes too far in restricting federal power?

Scott agreed that the prohibitions on the education secretary’s role are not his favorite part of ESSA. But he and other Democrats accepted in the negotiations that those restrictions were going to be part of the deal. He added, though, that the secretary maintains the authority to implement the law. Republicans, he said, “wanted to strip him of all his powers, where he couldn’t even make rules, couldn’t interpret words on the page.” Under ESSA, the secretary will be able to decide whether or not a state accountability plan is “serious,” Scott said.

You were the one negotiator in the conference who hadn’t been on board with either the House or the Senate bill, meaning that you could have walked away from the negotiating table. Why didn’t you?

“I don’t believe that the House could pass a bill without Democratic support, and our support came almost all or none,” Scott said, meaning the compromise would get most House Democrats or none of them. He didn’t want to sign on to a bill that didn’t maintain annual assessments and a requirement to close achievement gaps, or one that allowed for Title I portability.

“There was an initial attempt to start with the House and Senate bills and reconcile the differences,” Scott said. “But it was clear that to get Democratic support, we wanted improvements over both bills. That is unusual in a conference committee because a conference committee is usually just an opportunity to reconcile the differences and we had a compromise between the two of them. If you look at the final version, I think it is, in many aspects, better than either of them.”