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Senate Democrats Hammer Trump Nominee on DeVos’ ESSA Implementation

By Alyson Klein — January 25, 2018 4 min read
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Democrats used Tuesday’s confirmation hearing of Frank Brogan, President Donald Trump’s nominee for assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, to lambast U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos’ implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

DeVos, argued Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been rubber-stamping ESSA plans, approving them even if they don’t comply with provisions in the law to protect vulnerable subgroups of students and fix low-performing schools. (So far, the department has approved ESSA plans for 33 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.)

“Now that the law is passed and beginning to be implemented, I am very concerned the Department of Education is approving state plans that do not comply with all of ESSA’s federal guardrails,” said Murray, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, D-Tenn., the committee chairman, is pleased with the way DeVos is implementing the law, which passed with big bipartisan support back in 2015.

“I commend the work Secretary DeVos and her staff have already done in approving these plans,” he said. “She is charting new territory—approving plans that give states dramatic new freedom to set goals and hold students accountable. And I believe she is following the law—appropriately balancing the law’s flexibility and guardrails.”

DeVos, Murray said, has agreed to meet with her and Alexander about ESSA implementation.

Murray ticked off a number of things in approved plans she finds problematic: The department, she said, has greenlighted plans that allow schools to get the highest rating (say, an A) in their state’s school rating system, even if subgroups of students such as minorities and those with disabilities are falling behind. (Some examples of states where this is an issue in this report by the Education Trust.)

Some quick background: This is part of the law is complex and different people appear to have different interpretations. ESSA doesn’t specifically say schools can’t get an ‘A’ if the performance of subgroups students is iffy. But the law does require states to base their ratings at least in part on subgroup performance on each indicator of the accountability system, and to flag schools where any subgroup of students struggle for improvement, or “targeted” support.

And Murray isn’t happy that some of the approved plans use the same criteria for what’s supposed to be two separate groups of schools singled out for extra help: schools where subgroups are “consistently underperforming” (a term states get to define) and “chronically underperforming” (which ESSA defines as a school where subgroups of students are doing as badly as the kids in the worst schools in the state). Delaware and Washington state both have this issue.

“I believe in this law, and I’m not going to stop raising these issues until the Department resolves them,” Murray said.

Murray noted that DeVos hasn’t appeared before the committee to testify on ESSA implementation. That’s a contrast, she said, to President Barack Obama’s last education secretary, John B. King Jr., who testified twice during the first year of ESSA implementation. (This isn’t the first time Murray has expressed concerns about the way DeVos is approaching ESSA.)

Other Democrats shared Murray’s qualms.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said that the department hasn’t been consistent when it comes to the use of so-called “super-subgroups”, which combine groups like English-language learners, students in special education, and minority students into a larger group for accountability purposes. Civil rights advocates have said super-subgroups mask achievement gaps and are an ESSA no-no.

The department’s feedback letters to states on their ESSA plans raised questions about super-subgroups. But states were able to get them into their approved plans, including Alexander’s home state of Tennessee. The Volunteer State showed the department that more schools would be identified as needing extra help using super-subgroups than would be flagged otherwise.

Brogan didn’t commit to outlawing super-subgroups—or anything else.

Instead he said, “I’m working under the absolute belief that the plans that have been approved were compliant with the law.” Brogan added, however, that he’d be able to gather more information about the ins and outs once he is confirmed. He isn’t allowed to get in on things like plan approval as a nominee, he explained.

Brogan’s own background played second fiddle to the ESSA concerns.

Brogan has been a state chief, lieutenant governor, principal, teacher, and school superintendent. As Florida’s state chief in the mid-to-late 1990s, Brogan championed higher academic standards. And he supported using tax dollars for private schools.

Brand-new Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., seized on Brogan’s support for vouchers, noting that in his state, private schools were formed to help white families get around segregation. Jones said he doesn’t want to see schools like those getting federal money.

Brogan said that he’s merely in favor of more choices for parents.

“I have no interest in privatizing the public education system which serves obviously the lion’s share of children today,” Brogan said.

Despite the fireworks on ESSA, Brogan appears headed for confirmation. One promising sign for him? He was introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat, who called him a friend.

Photo: Frank Brogan, left, then Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor, chats with student Mary Butler during move-in day at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa., in 2014. (Markell DeLoatch/The Public Opinion via AP-File)

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