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Education Secretary Defends Draft ESSA Accountability, Spending Rules


U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. tried to quell fears from House lawmakers Thursday that proposed accountability rules dealing with struggling students and schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act go beyond what the law allows.


King also rebutted accusations from members of the House education committee that separate proposals to regulate spending under ESSA from the U.S. Department of Education would improperly force districts to radically upend how they distribute resources and teachers. 

The department's draft accountability rules were released last month. Notable aspects include the requirement for a single, summative rating for schools, which has also triggered some opposition, and the lack of any prescribed or suggested weights for indicators in states' ESSA accountability plans. 

"States must take meaningful action to improve schools" under ESSA, but they also possess significant flexibility in how they do so, King said.

Several lawmakers were unconvinced. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the committee chairman, said he saw "troubling signs" that the department was not abiding by ESSA. He zeroed in on his concern that the proposed rules would affect the total number of schools subject to some sort of turnaround strategy, telling King, "It looks like there's an attempt here to increase the number of schools identified for intervention."

While King said it was not the department's intent to jack up the number of schools needing turnarounds through regulations, he stressed that if initial interventions in schools were not successful under ESSA, further actions would be necessary and those interventions would have to intensify in some way. ESSA allows districts and state lots of leeway in deciding what those turnaround strategies look like. But they must focus on certain schools, such as high schools that fail to graduate more than two-thirds of their students and the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools (those with relatively large shares of poor students). 

"We will be vigilant in ensuring that states respond," King said.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. and the committee's ranking member, emphasized the importance of regulations even with the uncertainty of the 2016 presidential election, saying, "States and school districts need the consistency and dependability provided by regulations, elections or not."

There were also instances where there was straightforward disagreement about what the draft regulations stated or meant.

For example, Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., told King the draft would improperly dictate to states the definition of "consistently underperforming" groups of students. And Rep. Earl L. "Buddy" Carter, R-Ga., alleged that while ESSA lets states set criteria for allowing schools to exit the list of those needing improvement, the department's proposal would inappropriately restrain states regarding such decisions.

King repeatedly told both Byrne and Carter that their interpretations of the draft rules were different from his. He stressed to Byrne that states can decide what constitutes a consistently underperforming group of students—the department suggested possible definitions in the regulations, but did not prescribe any.

And King told Carter that the department deemed it appropriate to give academic factors a "much greater" weight in accountability, as required by ESSA, by requiring schools to show academic improvement in order to exit any list of schools deemed to need interventions, regardless of their performance on school quality or student success indicators. (King earlier called measuring chronic absenteeism "a good example" of such a school quality or student success indicator.)

Lawmakers also questioned the secretary sharply about the department's previously floated plans for regulating ESSA's requirement that federal dollars supplement and not supplant state and local money. (Background here.) Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Va., repeatedly asked King for an estimate of how much the department's plan would cost districts, a number King did not provide. And Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the House's K-12 subcommittee, lobbed accusations at King that he was essentially prescribing for districts how they had to spend their money, an approach not allowed by ESSA. (Other lawmakers have previously told King they're angered by his approach.)

King said fears about the impact of the proposal on districts' budgets and spending did not match what the department was asking. While he said money alone does not predict educational success or failure, he said intradistrict disparities in which wealthier students get much more money than their less-affluent peers affect real issues, such as the lack of counselors in many schools. 

"It translates into a real difference in students' experience," King said.

Educators Give Testimony to Congress 

After King left the hearing, others giving testimony both criticized and defended the department's regulatory approach— and the requirement for a single, summative score for schools got a lot of the spotlight. Stephen Pruitt, Kentucky's education commissioner, repeatedly said he was worried about draft ESSA rules' requirement for a single score for schools, telling lawmakers, "It creates an unhealthy sense of competition rather than collaboration" between schools.

We've previously covered concerns raised by Pruitt and state chiefs about that score, as well as his irritation about the draft rules' requirement that 2016-17 data from schools be used to identify which ones need "comprehensive" support under ESSA in 2017-18, a concern Pruitt reiterated in the hearing. In an interview after the hearing, Pruitt said he shared the secretary's urgency in addressing struggling schools, but added that without enough time, "You're going to have another system that may or may not be successful. We don't have time to really ... think innovatively."

And David Schuler, the superintendent of Arlington Heights, Ill., schools and the president of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, focused on what the law specifically does not say: "ESSA does not require each school to be rated by a single indicator. States should be allowed to create balanced accountability systems."

But Daria Hall, a vice president at the Education Trust, pushed back against the idea that single school scores and more complex data on each school are incompatible. She defended both approaches to lawmakers. 

Touching on a theme raised by Carter, the Georgia congressman, earlier in the hearing, Cassie Harrelson, a math teacher in the Aurora, Colo., district, said she was unhappy that the school quality and student success indicator was getting short shrift from the regulations as far as decisions about school turnarounds. And she once again touched on a point near and dear to King's heart: trying to ensure that various groups are heard and counted as states decide on their ESSA accountability plans. 

"All stakeholders must be engaged," Harrelson said, from teachers and parents to other community members. 

This week, federal lawmakers representing three caucuses also weighed in on the best approach for both ESSA accountability and ESSA spending regulations. Read the "tri-caucus" letter on accountability below:

And here's the tri-caucus letter on ESSA spending:

Photo: Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. testifies before the House education committee about proposed regulations for accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act on June 23, 2016. (Andrew Ujifusa)

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