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Randi Weingarten Tells Feds: Your Opt-Out Actions Fly in the Face of ESSA

Attention John King and Company: The American Federation of Teachers is not happy with the way that you are handling opt-outs in this new, post-No Child Left Behind era.

Both the NCLB law and the one that replaced it, the brand-new Every Student Succeeds Act, call for 95 percent of students to participate in state assessments. Under NCLB, any school that didn't meet that threshold automatically failed. But under ESSA, states get to decide how to handle schools where fewer than 95 percent of kids take tests—including schools where lots of parents decide to opt their kids out. (More on the ins-and-outs of ESSA here.)

The Education Department made it very clear at the end of December that they are taking that requirement super seriously. On Dec. 22, they sent a letter to state chiefs saying, essentially, they need a plan for schools with high opt-outs, or they face federal sanctions. That letter gave states suggested actions, most of were pretty meaningful, like requiring districts to come up with a plan to fix low participation rates. (Not on the list were less dramatic—but maybe just as permissible—steps like taking a tiny fraction of a percentage off a school's overall score if their opt-out rates are really high.)

The department's letter did not sit well with the AFT. The union penned its own missive to King, the acting secretary, that included plenty of smack-talk from President Randi Weingarten. Here's a snippet (full letter here):

As you are well aware, while the new ESSA requires states to test 95 percent of students, it allows them to decide how they will factor this requirement into their accountability system ... Make no mistake, the opt-out movement--the reason that so many states did not meet the 95 percent participation requirement in 2014-15--was a referendum on this administration's policies that created the culture of overtesting and punishment. Your October 2015 "Testing Action Plan" admitted as much, and the overwhelmingly bipartisan passage of ESSA was a strong signal that the page must be turned on these policies.

And the AFT points out that the Dec. 22 letter on opt-outs came just days after another letter, on Dec. 18, telling states that the feds were ready to move towards ESSA and jettison the pieces of NCLB that aren't part of the new law:

States are now working out how they will move to new accountability systems, and they need the flexibility and support offered in your Dec. 18 letter, not the threat of sanctions contained in the Dec. 22 letter.

Which states might have an opt-out issue? The department has sent warning letters to 13 states: CaliforniaColoradoConnecticutDelawareIdaho, Illinois, MaineNew YorkNorth CarolinaOregonRhode IslandWashington, and Wisconsin. More from Andrew here.  

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