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Top Democrats to Betsy DeVos: Your New Plan for ESSA Review Violates the Law

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 28, 2017 | Updated: May 08, 2023 2 min read
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Updated: A previous version of this page included an embedded letter, which has since been removed.

The top two Democrats for education in Congress have warned U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that her department’s new approach to reviewing states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans is riddled with problems.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the ranking Democrats on the respective Senate and House education committees, wrote in a Friday letter to DeVos that the U.S. Department of Education’s plans to begin conducting two-hour phone calls with states about their ESSA plans before providing states with formal comments will “limit the public’s knowledge” about ESSA-related agreements between states and the department.

“We are deeply concerned that this decision will result in inconsistent treatment of state agencies, leading to flawed implementation of our nation’s education law and harm to our nation’s most vulnerable students,” Murray and Scott wrote.

The two lawmakers also say that the revised approach to ESSA violates the section of the law that deals with state plans. This appears to be a reference to the section of ESSA that states the following:

(5) PUBLIC REVIEW.-- All written communications, feedback, and notifications under this subsection shall be conducted in a manner that is transparent and immediately made available to the public on the Department’s website, including-- (A) plans submitted or resubmitted by a State; (B) peer-review guidance, notes, and comments and the names of the peer reviewers (once the peer reviewers have completed their work); (C) State plan determinations by the Secretary, including approvals or disapprovals; and (D) notices and transcripts of hearings under this section.

In the letter, Murray and Scott ask DeVos to justify this change in policy, as well as communications with Congress and others concerning it.

As we reported on Thursday, the department has decided to hold these phone calls so that state leaders can explain any hiccups or potential problems with their plans. These issues, in turn, may not subsequently come up in the department’s official letters to states about their plans. The new approach “is intended to provide an informal opportunity to address any potential concerns,” Elizabeth Hill, the department’s press secretary, said in a statement.

But this raises questions about the states that have already received feedback from the department without this chance to discuss them over the phone with federal officials first. And it’s unclear whether reporters, advocates, and the general public would have access to what’s said on those calls. DeVos’ team has already taken a fair bit of heat for how it’s handled state ESSA plans.

Citing DeVos’ stated commitment to ensure states have “clarity” as they shift to ESSA, Murray and Scott told DeVos in the letter that, “Changing the rules after the process is already well underway does just the opposite. Doing so is unfair to state agencies and imposes a highly subjective standard in plan review.”

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