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Lawmakers to States, Ed. Dept. on ESSA: We'll Be Watching You

Washington

Lawmakers on the House education committee had a not-so-subtle message Wednesday for states and the U.S. Department of Education as they move to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act: We'll be watching you. 

Republicans on the panel that held the hearing seemed to be trying to cut potential federal overreach off at the pass, making it crystal clear from the get-go that, in their view, the law is aimed at returning key authority over K-12 schools to states and districts. 

ESSA "includes more than 50 provisions to keep the Department of Education in check" when it comes to accountability, standards, assessments, and more, said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy in his opening statement. "Congress promised to restore state and local control over K-12 education, and now it's our job to ensure that promise is kept."

Meanwhile, Democrats made it equally clear they'll be keeping their eye on the department and states to make sure that they don't use this newfound flexibility to trample on protections for historically overlooked groups of students, such as English-language learners and those in special education.

"The U.S. Department of Education will need to ensure that states are putting children first," said Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. 

To be sure, this rhetoric is all pretty preliminary. States are still mulling their ESSA plans, and the department hasn't even specified exactly what it will be regulating on. 

But the different takes on ESSA oversight should come as no surprise to anyone who followed the development of the legislation closely. ESSA—which passed with big, bipartisan support late last year—seeks to strike a delicate balance between giving states and districts much greater leeway on K-12 and continuing the federal role in looking out for vulnerable groups of kids.

'Trust Us'

State and district leaders who testified before the committee—Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction, and Paul "Vic" Wilson, the superintendent of Hartselle City Schools in Alabama, had their own message for the feds: Trust us.

"States are not only ready, but we are willing and able to lead," Hofmeister said, noting that states have already raised standards and improved tests. "Future regulations should focus on providing states with guidance, clarification, and support, not prescription or compliance."

What's more, an alphabet soup of ten groups representing superintendents, principals, state and local board members, state lawmakers and teachers sent a letter to acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., Wednesday, letting him know that they'll be working together to promote state, local, and school decision-making when it comes to ESSA regulation.

But Selene Almazan, the legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which works to protect the civil rights of students in special education, sees a pivotal role for the federal government in making sure states look out for low-income kids, racial minorities, students in special education, and others.

"Past history shows that states often set expectations far too low, which leads directly to low student achievement, impacting our most disadvantaged students," she said in written testimony. 

One particular exchange encapsulated both sides of the argument: During her testimony, Hofmeister said she's not thrilled with every part of her state's accountability system. The way that the Sooner State calculates the performance of subgroup students can "mask gaps." Oklahoma will likely revisit that portion of its system when it designs its new accountability system under ESSA, she said.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., seized on that, asking her how the federal government can make sure that other states don't use their newfound flexibility to "sweep the performance of low-performing subgroups of students under the rug."

Hofmeister's response? "We have to accept the fact that at the state level, I am held accountable to the people of the state of Oklahoma," she said. (Hofmeister is an elected chief.) 

Polis noted, though, that she's elected by a majority of people in the Sooner State, but required to look after minority rights. "There's more to it than just politics," he said. "There's a civil rights issue that transcends politics."

Standards and Enforcement

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also sought to clear up areas where they seem to think that messaging on ESSA has been muddled.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who was an architect of the law, said he's dismayed with some of the rhetoric coming out of the U.S. Department of Education on areas like standards.

The law calls for states to adopt standards that get students ready for college-bearing coursework and, in Kline's view, the department has been twisting that language to make it sound like the law still somehow endorses something like the Common Core State Standards—which wasn't his intention.

For her part, Rep. Suzanne Bonaminci, D-Ore., said there's nothing in ESSA that inhibits the U.S. Department of Education's authority to enforce the law.

And one of the witnesses called by Republicans, Kent Talbert who served as general counsel at the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, agreed that the law's laundry list of secretarial prohibitions don't hinder enforcement authority.

But he also said, in general, the department should tread carefully. If it oversteps its bounds in regulation, it could open itself up to lawsuits.

More to Come 

This might be the House's first ESSA oversight hearing, but it won't be the last. The panel has already invited King up to testify twice before the end of the month. The first appearance, possibly on Feb. 24, is slated to focus on the budget. And the second, on Feb. 25, is expected to be solely on ESSA implementation and oversight. (Read the committee's letter to King here.) 

What's more, the committee expects to continue ongoing communication with the department, including congressional staff briefings.

Meanwhile, the Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, has already announced plans to hold at least three oversight hearings on ESSA implementation this year. The first could be scheduled for the end of this month or early next, advocates say. 

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