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Alexander: Federal Role on K-12 Will Be 'Very Different' Under ESSA

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Attention U.S. Department of Education officials gearing up to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act: Get ready to raise your right hand and swear under oath. (You too, school district and state officials.)

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education chairman, expects the federal role to be "very different" under ESSA, the most recent edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That could help shape the direction of education policy for the next two decades, he said.

And he and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are already planning for for "at least three major" oversight hearings on implementation of ESSA next year, Alexander told me and CQ Roll Call's Senate reporter extraordinaire, Niels Lesniewski, and Susan Swain of C-SPAN in an interview on "Newsmakers" that will air on Sunday morning.  

Alexander expects the hearings will feature Education Department officials as well as school board members, teachers, and state schools chiefs to talk about how the implementation and regulation process is playing out. Lawmakers will want to know both how the department is doing and how states and districts are taking on greater responsibility, Alexander said. 

It's still unclear how limitations on secretarial authority in ESSA will play out in regulation, both politically and practically.

Civil rights groups say they want the department to use the authority it still has under the law to ensure a continued focus on educational equity. But Noelle Ellerson, of AASA, the School Administrators Association, is worried that the federal department will try to "regulate to the max" on ESSA, despite the law's limitations.

When asked about the district advocates' concerns, Alexander said he doesn't think they have anything to worry about. 

The department, he said, "need[s] to read the law carefully. And we expect them to do it and to follow the law, and there are specific prohibitions. We have an oversight responsibility. "

ESSA seeks to hand greater authority over accountability, school turnarounds, teacher evaluation, and more to states. So how does Alexander see the federal role in K-12 going forward?

"I think it will be very different," he said. ESSA was able to attract such broad, bipartisan support in part because "everybody was really fed up with Washington telling 100,000 public schools so much about what to do and it was really creating a backlash on efforts to set higher standards, namely Common Core, and teacher evaluation." 

Going forward, he sees things playing out very differently, "What I believe is that when we take the handcuffs off, we'll unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom, state by state that will benefit children, and I want to put the spotlight on that. " 

Alexander said he got a congratulatory note from President Barack Obama for his role in getting the bill across the finish line. And he got a thank you call from former President George W. Bush, who signed the No Child Left Behind Act. All that bipartisan love means that states and school districts can roll up their sleeves and get going on implementation. 

"We've got a law that will govern the federal role in K-12 education for 10 or 20 years so that teachers and governors have some stability in what's coming from here toward them," he said.

And Alexander thinks the law's passage will put the debate over who is charge of standards to rest, after a huge backlash to the Obama administration's role in championing the Common Core State Standards. 

"That's over," he said. "Common core created a backlash. It was an issue in almost every Republican primary and the general elections too, because people perceived that President Obama was making them do it. Now the law prohibits any president, any secretary from telling Tennessee what its academic standards should be. So that's over as an issue in a federal race. If you don't like your academic standards, go talk to your governor. Go talk to your classroom teacher or your school board. Don't bother your senator or congressman, because they don't have anything to do with that."

So now that Alexander, Murray and company have pulled off the nearly impossible—a long stalled rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act—what's their next act?

Some health legislation, and of course, the Higher Education Act, Alexander said, with particular attention to the student loan issue.

"I'm concerned about overborrowing. One way to deal with that might be to have institutions [have]  some role in a default of a student loan. Risk-sharing or skin in the game is an interesting concept. We have to be careful with it," he added. He doesn't want new rules on student aid to prevent students from applying to college.

And, even though there have been efforts to make the Free Application for Federal Student Aid simpler, Alexander thinks it can be streamlined even further, maybe even down to two questions. In fact, he brought a visual aid to illustrate his point. (See his shorter FAFSA form, and the long FAFSA in the picture at the top of this post.)

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