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Nominee for Top Education Dept. Attorney: I’d Tell Officials to Follow ESSA

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 19, 2017 2 min read
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The nominee to be the U.S. Department of Education’s lead attorney, under questioning from the top Democrat for education in the Senate, said he would tell states and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to follow the Every Student Succeeds Act.

His statement follows comments from DeVos that states should push to get as much flexibility as possible under the law.

In his Tuesday confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee, Carlos Muñiz, an attorney in private practice who formerly worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, gave a narrow answer about ESSA oversight, telling Sen. Patty Murray of Washington that, “My advice to states would be to follow the law. ... My job would be to advise her as to what the law requires, advise her as to what her discretion might be.”

During our exclusive Q&A with DeVos last week, the secretary said that under ESSA, “I’m encouraging states to do so and not to err on the side of caution, but to really push and go up to the line, test how far it takes to go over it.”

He took a similar line with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who asked Muñiz if DeVos should follow ESSA’s clear prohibitions on the secretary’s role in issues such as state’s long-term academic goals. Muñiz responded that he would be “scrupulous” in advising officials to follow the law.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., meanwhile, raised the issue of the Trump administration’s decision to scrap Obama-era guidance on transgender student rights in schools.

After Muñiz said he agreed with Franken that LGBT students deserve to go to school in a safe and respectful environment, the senator asked him if Trump met the expectations of LGBT students and their families when he scrapped that guidance.

Muñiz responded it was his understanding that the move was intended “to give the new administration the opportunity to study the law and study those issues.”

“The department has been clear that all students have a right to be free of sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds,” Muñiz said.

During her own testimony to Congress, DeVos came under fire for how she described the responsibilities of private schools with respect to racial and sexual discrimination.

Few Nominees So Far

In prepared remarks before the committee, Muñiz said his previous work in Florida “have taught me the importance of the rule of law.”

And Muñiz also stressed that he would use his independent legal judgment at the department, telling senators, “My ultimate duty will be to the law, not to any individual or objective.”

Muñiz is just the second nominee for the Education Department to come before the Senate committee, following DeVos herself. Peter Oppenheim, a former aide to committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was confirmed as the department’s liaison to Congress earlier this year. Several key positions for K-12 at the department still do not have Senate-confirmed appointees.