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Dueling Remarks on ESSA by Education Secretary, Key Republican Senator

Washington, D.C.

The Every Student Succeeds Act may have passed in a flurry of bipartisan love and good feelings—but that doesn't mean that the fights over the federal role in K-12 education are over.

That dynamic was apparent Monday at the National School Boards Association conference here, where U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and a key architect of ESSA gave back-to-back speeches.

King, who spoke first, said the proof of whether the new law strikes the right balance between state and federal control will be whether schools use it to further equity for all students. 060316-john-king-SP0121.jpg

"We have to acknowledge how we got here," King said. In the past "there were some communities that weren't attending to the needs of English-language learners in their accountability systems .... There are high schools today where students can't take the very courses that will be necessary for" success in college. 

Alexander, on the other hand, told the school board members that he needed their help in ensuring that the U.S. Department of Education doesn't become a national school board.

And he encouraged school boards to follow the law as it was written, not the department's regulations. "The law was written by people you can get rid of," he said, referring to the election of members of Congress. "The rules were written by people you'll never meet."

Supplement-Not-Supplant

The biggest point of contrast, unsurprisingly, was on supplement-not-supplant. (That's the wonky provision of the law that deals with how federal dollars are supposed to be used in relation to state and local money.) The department's proposed rule would require that teachers' salaries be part of the mix when ensuring state and local funds are evenly spread between poor schools and wealthier schools, a prerequisite for tapping Title I dollars. You can read all about the controversy here.

12-congress-lamar-alexander-600.jpgIt doesn't sound like King is backing down from the department's proposed rule on supplement-not-supplant.

"We need to ensure that the fiscal accountability elements of the law are enforced," King said. He gave some background on how supplement-not-supplant came about. The provision "originated with a study by the NAACP and the Children's Defense Fund in 1969 that showed that despite the commitment in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to get resources to the highest-needs kids, that was not in fact happening."

The goal of the regulation is ensuring that federal funds truly are an extra for needy students, he said. "Money is not everything, but money is necessary to pay for things like advanced coursework and school counseling, and the kinds of after-school programs and extended learning time that we know make a difference." 

Alexander had a very different take. He said that the department is essentially flouting ESSA, which said very specifically that educators' salaries are not supposed to be part of the mix in calculating whether spending is equal between schools that get federal money for disadvantaged kids and those that don't. (The Congressional Research Service concurs.) 

The department, he said, paid no mind to that portion of the law.

"They just ignored it. They just ignored it. I'm pretty upset about that," he said. "Our consensus was to move out of Washington and back to you most decisions about what to do about the results of tests and standards and all of the things that I just mentioned before. And this goes strictly against that line of thinking." 

He said the proposed accountability regulations also appear to be an overreach, but he's holding off on commenting on them specifically, for now, out of respect to the president. (He said something very similar in this Q-and-A.)

But it sounds like his comments on the proposed accountability rule could be pretty blistering, and he's asking school board members to take a serious look at the proposal, too.

"I'm going to ask you to join me in saying to the Department of Education, 'Surely you can read the law?,'" he said.

Next Steps 

Meanwhile, King's comments also emphasized the need for stakeholder engagement under ESSA. States are supposed to reach out to the civil rights community, school districts, and educators as they design their accountability plans under the law.

"States have the responsibility to conduct broad, meaningful stakeholder engagement early and often," King said.  "This can't be one of those times where the state produces a plan and then calls folks in this room in 10 days before submission and says, 'Hey, read this 500-page document, let us know what you think by tomorrow.'"

On another issue, it sounds like both Alexander and King are ready to roll when it comes to reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. King said there's a lot of bipartisan agreement on the policy there—and he's hoping the reauthorization can make it over the finish line this year. (The potential holdup: the political conventions in July, Alexander said.)

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, also as listed this renewal as a priority for the year.  


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