Lawmakers on the House education committee have a not-so-subtle message for states and the U.S. Department of Education as they move to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act: We’ll be watching you.
Republicans on a panel holding an oversight hearing last week seemed to be trying to cut potential federal overreach off at the pass, making it clear that, in their view, the law is aimed at returning key authority over K-12 schools to states and districts.
ESSA “includes more than 50 provisions to keep the Department of Education in check” on accountability, standards, assessments, and more, Rep. Todd Rokita, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy, said in his Feb. 10 opening statement. “Congress promised to restore state and local control over K-12 education, and now, it’s our job to ensure that promise is kept.”
Meanwhile, Democrats made it equally clear they’ll be keeping their eye on the department and states to make sure that they don’t use this newfound flexibility to trample on protections for historically overlooked groups of students, such as English-language learners and those in special education.
“The U.S. Department of Education will need to ensure that states are putting children first,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, the top Democrat on the subcommittee.
To be sure, this rhetoric is all pretty preliminary. States are still mulling their ESSA plans, and the department hasn’t even specified the areas of the law on which it will be issuing regulations.
But the different takes on ESSA oversight should come as no surprise to anyone who followed the development of the legislation closely. ESSA—which passed with big, bipartisan support late last year—seeks to strike a delicate balance between giving states and districts much greater leeway on K-12 and continuing the federal role in looking out for vulnerable groups of students.
State and district leaders who testified before the subcommittee—Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, and Paul “Vic” Wilson, the superintendent of the Hartselle district in Alabama, had their own message for federal officials: Trust us.
“States are not only ready, but we are willing and able to lead,” Hofmeister said, noting that states have already raised standards and improved tests. “Future regulations should focus on providing states with guidance, clarification, and support, not prescription or compliance.”
What’s more, an alphabet soup of 10 groups representing superintendents, principals, state and local board members, state lawmakers, and teachersthat same day, letting him know that they’ll be working together to promote state, local, and school decisionmaking when it comes to ESSA regulation.
But Selene Almazan, the legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which works to protect the civil rights of students in special education, sees a pivotal role for the federal government in making sure states look out for low-income children, racial minorities, students in special education, and others.
“Past history shows that states often set expectations far too low, which leads directly to low student achievement, impacting our most disadvantaged students,” she said in written testimony.
One particular exchange encapsulated both sides of the argument: During her testimony, Hofmeister said she’s not thrilled with every part of her state’s accountability system. The way that the Sooner State calculates the performance of subgroup students can “mask gaps.” Oklahoma will likely revisit that portion of its system when it designs its new accountability system under ESSA, she said.
Standards and Enforcement
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., seized on that, asking her how the federal government can make sure that other states don’t use their newfound flexibility to “sweep the performance of low-performing subgroups of students under the rug.”
“We have to accept the fact that at the state level, I am held accountable to the people of the state of Oklahoma,” she responded. (Hofmeister is an elected chief.)
Polis noted, though, that she’s elected by a majority in Oklahoma, but required to look after minority rights. “There’s more to it than just politics,” he said. “There’s a civil rights issue that transcends politics.
“Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also sought to clear up areas where they seem to think that messaging on ESSA has been muddled.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who was an architect of the law, said he’s dismayed with some of the rhetoric coming out of the Department of Education on areas like standards.
The law calls for states to adopt standards that get students ready for credit-bearing coursework and, in Kline’s view, the department has been twisting that language to make it sound like the law still somehow endorses something like the Common Core State Standards—which wasn’t his intention.
For her part, Rep. Suzanne Bonaminci, D-Ore., said there’s nothing in ESSA that inhibits the department’s authority to enforce the law.
And one of the witnesses called by Republicans, Kent Talbert, the general counsel at the Education Department under President George W. Bush, agreed that the law’s laundry list of secretarial prohibitions doesn’t hinder enforcement authority.
But he also said, in general, the department should tread carefully. If it oversteps its bounds in regulation, it could open itself up to lawsuits.
Even though this was the House’s first ESSA oversight hearing, it won’t be the last: The panel has already invited King to testify on the budget, and again solely on ESSA implementation and oversight.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Lawmakers Pledging to Keep Close Eye on ESSA Implementation