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John King Pressed on Federal Control, Accountability at ESSA Oversight Hearing


Members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee used their oversight hearing on the new federal education law Thursday to ask acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., about overtesting, interventions in struggling schools, and how he would strike a balance between local control and federal protections for disadvantaged students.

Republican members of the committee, including Chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., also aggressively questioned King about comments made late last year by former Secretary Arne Duncan about the balance of power between the U.S. Department of Education and Congress. 

In his opening remarks, Kline said that ESSA represents a major shift in control over education policy that will appropriately empower states and local districts—and end what he called the misguided waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act promoted by President Barack Obama's administration, and the strait-jacket schools were put in by NCLB. The Education Department, Kline said, must adhere to that spirit when helping to implement the new law.

"If we learned anything throughout the process to replace No Child Left Behind, it's that the American people are tired of Washington micromanaging their classrooms," Kline told King, who was scheduled to attend his confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee later that day.

For his part, King stressed repeatedly that input from educators and other state and local education leaders will be a very important part of how the Education Department approaches developing regulations under ESSA and helping schools implement it. But he also asserted the federal government's role in making sure that "guardrails" for struggling and disadvantaged students are followed, a key issue on which he said states and local districts did not always have a good track record.

"We are a civil rights agency enforcing a civil rights law," King told lawmakers.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee's ranking Democrat, clearly stressed the federal department's role under ESSA: "This new law is a not a blank check. There are federal guidelines," Scott said.

This is the second oversight hearing the House has held on ESSA. The first was before the education committee's K-12 subcommittee earlier this month, and highlighted the tension between those who think ESSA prioritizes greater state authority over education, and those who want equity issues not to be overshadowed by any shifts in governance. 

'Legitimate Concern'

There was some friction early on and throughout the meeting, particularly when King dealt with questions about the department's power and state control over accountability.

Kline used his question time to highlight a comment Duncan made to Politico Pro last year that he was confident that Education Department lawyers could outfox Congress when it comes to secretarial power under ESSA. Noting that ESSA was explicitly written by Congress to curb federal authority over K-12 after years of what Kline deemed an overreaching Obama administration, Kline said, "Statements like this from Arne Duncan merely reinforce this legitimate concern."

King responded by expressing his desire to work with Congress to implement ESSA, and by stating that the department, for the moment, is focused on what officials hear     from various individuals and groups involved with schools. At numerous points, he assured GOP lawmakers that the Education Department would abide by the law and make sure its work did not overstep the limits placed on the department.

Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., chairman of the House's subcommittee on K-12, asserted, "The federal government is in no way capable of knowing what works best for everyone," and asked King directly whether education is primarily a state issue. King agreed.

However, at other points in the hearing, King stressed the responsibilities that states have under ESSA, as well as their newfound flexibility, stating at one point, "We believe the law is clear, that states have a responsibility to close achievement gaps."

King's controversial tenure as New York state education commissioner  also came up. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said several teachers in her state had told her they were not really engaged or consulted as the state shifted to the Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluations during his time as commissioner. (King served as commissioner from 2011 through 2014.) When Stefanik asked if he would have done anything differently in retrospect, King responded that New York wasn't alone as it struggled with major shifts in policies in recent years.

"There was, I think, in many states an unfortunate phenomenon of teacher-evaluation work and the work of raising standards being conflated together," King told Stefanik, although he also said teachers were closely involved in efforts in New York.

ESSA prohibits the federal government from having any say in teacher evaluation systems developed by states. That's a major departure from the Obama administration's NCLB waivers and its Race to the Top grant program.

Testing, Low-Performing Schools

King also dealt with questions from lawmakers such as Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., about what they said should be the federal government's reduced role in interventions in schools identified as underperforming.

King agreed that states have more flexibility in several areas. But he also said they have a responsibility under ESSA to intervene in schools where graduation rates and other factors indicate problems, and must re-examine intervention efforts that don't produce results. He also said states have a chance to produce "much more targeted" interventions based on data on specific student populations.

And King said that ESSA will allow states and schools to more broadly measure "educational excellence" by moving beyond tests and looking at indicators of social-emotional learning and students' civic engagement.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., asked King how testing could be reduced in schools, citing problems in her home state. King responded by citing recent department guidance for states on how to cut back on tests. While he said there was likely a good bit of redundancy in terms of state and local assessment, he said that the data tests provide should not be ignored.

"We don't want assessment to crowd out good instruction," King said.

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