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Guns and Disadvantaged Students Take Center Stage at Senate ESSA Hearing

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 25, 2018 6 min read
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While several state education chiefs told the Senate Education committee Tuesday how they’re using the Every Student Succeeds Act to transform their schools and accountability systems, Democrats used much of the hearing to highlight their opposition to the idea of using federal ESSA money to arm educators.

The discussion was just the second time the Senate panel has held a public hearing about the federal education law since the start of the Trump administration—the first was in October 2017. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was notable for her absence at the hearing; although she wasn’t present, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, defended her approval of state ESSA plans, as well as her decision to leave whether to use federal aid to pay for guns in schools up to states.

Although ESSA passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, there’s been a long-standing and often robust dispute over how DeVos and her Education Department are handling the law.

Civil rights groups and top Democrats for K-12 policy have argued DeVos is approving plans that flout the law when it comes to school ratings and how low-performing schools are identified. However, DeVos has said she’s only approved plans that comport with ESSA, even as she’s exhorted states (sometimes using blunt language) to push the limits of the law’s flexibility. And Alexander has also used his clout to push for states to be given as much freedom as possible. Read more about that ESSA debate here.

Stating that he had met with DeVos and U.S. Department of Education attorneys to go over the ESSA plans she had approved, Alexander said at the committee hearing, “I believe that she is exactly following the law in those cases. ... I think we have a difference of opinion in reading the law.”

Summing up the view of her peers from Delaware and Nebraska at the hearing, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, a Republican, told senators that, “Without the flexibility of ESSA, these triumphs that we know are going to happen could not be.”

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the panel, said DeVos had ignored the will of Democrats who voted for the law because of its protections for vulnerable students. An exchange between Murray and hearing witness Shavar Jeffries, the president of Education Reform Now, highlighted how—according to Jeffries—some states’ ESSA plans fail to properly differentiate results between some or all of their subgroups. (Education Reform Now advocates for strong accountability and oversight measures, among other priorities.)

“A school may look like it is succeeding, even if all the African-American students or students with disabilities, for example, are falling behind,” Murray said. “Our federal education law should not be focused solely on making states’ lives easier.”

‘Dumbest Idea’

Among Democrats there was one common theme at the hearing: Attack DeVos for her position on the possibility of federal education money going to guns.

Ever since news emerged that DeVos was considering allowing ESSA block grant money under Title IV to arm school staff, Democrats and some education advocates have blasted the idea, calling it a waste of money that would not make school safer and would violate the law. Ultimately, DeVos stated that she would take no position on whether schools could use ESSA aid for guns, leaving it up to states and districts to decide.

After acknowledging a crowd of activists at the hearing from Moms Demand Action, a group that pushes for gun-control measures, Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., called the idea of arming educators “the dumbest idea that I think I’ve ever heard in the educational field.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., perhaps the Senate’s most vigorous advocate for gun control, argued that Title IV’s language regarding “weapons-free schools” made it clear that congressional intent was for the money not to go to guns. Other Democratic senators also said using the money for firearms would only deprive disadvantaged students of access to things like music, art, and advanced coursework.

“It would contradict the equity mandates in ESSA,” Murray said.

Alexander essentially took DeVos’ side. Although he said at the hearing that, “I am not a fan of arming teachers,” he said the law did let states and districts make their own decisions about how to spend the money.

ESSA Data and Accountability

None of the three state chiefs at the hearing voiced support for using federal money to arm teachers at the panel. They were more eager to talk about their accountability plans and other under-the-hood ESSA issues.

Superintendents stressed that while they like the room to run provided by ESSA, they had taken great pains to involve local communities and others with a stake in their school systems when they crafted new accountability systems and priorities for K-12 systems. Among other things, they said this approach had led to new measures being used to judge schools and meet ESSA’s requirements, including chronic absenteeism and readiness for college and career.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt highlighted his state’s new ESSA goal of cutting in half the share of students not scoring proficient on state exams over the next 10 years. He also talked up Nebraska’s efforts to ensure a stronger teacher pipeline to underserved communities.

“We now see the federal government as a strong partner” in state-level work, Blomstedt told lawmakers. “ESSA has allowed us to better align federal programs ... that would not have been allowed under No Child Left Behind without significant waivers from that law.”

And Spearman said ESSA had led to the state to hire “transformation coaches” that would serve as boots on the ground in schools. The state had also recently shifted its focus to help more students get involved in career and technical education programs.

It wasn’t all happy talk. Susan Bunting, Delaware’s state chief, noted that Delaware’s initial plan to include science and social studies test results into academic achievement indicators under ESSA was rejected by DeVos. (The state ultimately included those results in measures of school quality instead.) But she did say that under ESSA, the state would seek to pilot evidence-based school-improvement strategies in different schools, and then share successful ones with different schools based on their demographics and other contextual information. Bunting also sought to address concerns about what the state would share publicly, stating that, “We’re very transparent. We will report on subgroup data.”

Transparency was also a focus for Spearman, who said that the state had thought very carefully about creating its school classifications, stating that its 100-point grading measure would be “very easy to understand” for parents.

Meanwhile, Jeffries of Education Reform Now criticized the “yawning achievement gaps” that remained despite the “islands of progress” under ESSA. He called out Arizona, for example, for not breaking out all student subgroup performance as ESSA demanded. And he said states need to hold schools accountable for information showing that their students of color suffered from disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsions. (The Obama administration issued guidance intended to get schools to address this disproportionality in discipline, although DeVos is considering whether to rescind that guidance.)

“We need Congress to demand data to make sure that schools and states are doing the right thing,” Jeffries said.

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information:

Photo: Witnesses testify before the Senate education committee about the Every Student Succeeds Act. From left: Matthew Blomstedt, Commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Education; Susan Bunting, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Education; Shavar Jeffries, President of Education Reform Now of Newark, N.J., and Molly Spearman, Superintendent of the South Carolina Department of Education. (Eman Mohammed for Education Week)

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