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Every Student Succeeds Act

Ex-Education Secretary William J. Bennett Urges GOP to ‘Seize the Day’ on ESSA

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 26, 2016 4 min read
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A new education policy group led by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett wants to ensure that state Republican lawmakers stick to conservative principles as they implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Conservative Leaders for Education aims to promote school choice, local control, “transparent” and “timely” accountability, and “high academic standards” chosen by states as they shift to ESSA, the new federal education law passed last year. The idea behind the group is to push those principles in statehouses, but also to have state lawmakers share specific policy ideas to match.

“NCLB is dead. We urge states to seize the day. Republicans need to step up,” Bennett said in a phone interview, referring to the previous iteration of federal education law, the No Child Left Behind Act. “I’ve been complaining, worrying, wondering out loud, frustrated about education as a conservative. Democrats act as if they own it, and in many ways, they have owned it.”

We also got Bennett—the new group’s chairman, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary from 1985 to 1988—to discuss his dealings with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on education. More on that below.

Conservative Leaders for Education’s membership is made up of state lawmakers who chair education committees in eight states—Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin—and it will seek to add new state lawmakers in the future. (All of those states, except Colorado, have Republican governors.)

Right now, Republicans control 30 state legislatures and 31 governorships, and they have unified control of 22 states. The GOP has held sway over the majority of states since the 2010 elections, but Bennett said that up until ESSA, they didn’t have the freedom to create as much education policy as they might have wished. ESSA changes that, he said.

Conservative Leaders for Education will be particularly helpful for state lawmakers who have control over K-12 policy, but aren’t necessarily veterans of education policy and political battles, said Michigan GOP Rep. Amanda Price, the chairwoman of her chamber’s education panel and a member of the new group’s steering committee.

“I think it’s going to be a unique and useful resource for us,” Price, who’s been chairwoman of her chamber’s K-12 committee for about 18 months, said in a phone interview.

Unions, Choice, and Accountability

Bennett is particularly concerned that the two national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, will exert more influence than Republican K-12 leaders as states and districts begin the shift to ESSA.

I asked the about the fact that the AFT and NEA were closely involved with the creation and passage of ESSA, and that the NEA even gave ESSA architect Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an award last month. Bennett responded that while that may be true, he’s already seeing evidence that the unions are pushing for soft and fuzzy “subjective” accountability provisions that fly in the face of the new group’s principles.

And he cited AFT President Randi Weingarten’s attack on testing during her remarks at the Democratic National Committee on Monday.

“They’re happy to get this at the local level, they think they’re stronger at the local level,” Bennett said of the unions. “That’s why I think they’re giving at least two cheers for ESSA. ... When you talk about choice, you know what the unions will say about that.”

But the new group doesn’t want state education departments in Republican-controlled states to be too prescriptive either—that goes against what ESSA should accomplish, said Kentucky Sen. Mike Wilson, the chairman of his chamber’s education committee, who is also on the new group’s steering committee.

“It stifles creativity and innovation that we know really happens at the local level,” Wilson said.

For his own part, Wilson said he’s been pushing for legislation to allow charter schools in Kentucky. He said his bill is in sync with ESSA because it would require Bluegrass State charter schools to be held to the same standard as traditional public schools.

One area where Wilson isn’t a huge fan of recent developments around ESSA? The requirement in draft ESSA accountability rules for a “single, summative rating” for schools that might mask specific issues in specific schools, he said. He thinks “dashboard” accountability can be more helpful. (His state’s schools chief, Stephen Pruitt, agrees.)

Those and other K-12 disagreements, like those in Michigan over teacher tenure and evaluations, show why the group is needed, Price said: “Education is not for the faint-hearted.”

Advising Trump

Apart from ESSA, I also asked Bennett, who now hosts a talk radio program, to flesh out comments he’s made previously that he’s been in contact with GOP nominee Donald Trump about education policy. Bennett, for example, has backed the Common Core State Standards, but Trump has denounced the standards, although without specifying why.

Bennett responded that he had one brief conversation with Trump, telling him he’d be happy to offer Trump advice about education. “He said, “Great, I’ll look forward to talking with you further,"" Bennett said, although he added that Trump hasn’t followed up.

However, Bennett said he has shared his ideas with conservative economists Stephen Moore and Lawrence Kudlow, who have been working with Trump’s campaign directly on policy. And Bennett noted that he’s also personally shared his ideas with presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, although he hasn’t seen anything come of that.

Photo: Former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Michael Caulfield/AP-File

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