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ESSA Would Handcuff a Trump Education Secretary on Common Core And More

President-elect Donald Trump's education secretary—whoever it is—won't be able to follow through on one of his campaign's signature education promises: getting rid of the Common Core education standards, which he's called "a total disaster."

Why? The law specifically bars the education secretary, any education secretary, from monkeying around with states' standards. The law says, very explicitly and in a bunch of different places, that the secretary can't tell states they must adopt—or steer clear of—a particular set of standards, including the common core.

And the incoming secretary won't be able to use federal grants or promises of flexibility to force or entice states to pick a particular state test, use certain interventions to improve their lowest-performing schools, measure student growth in a particular way, or choose a certain method for evaluating teachers.

That's thanks to the Republican architects of the Every Student Succeeds Act, who were really unhappy with what they saw as big-time overreach from former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. 

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Duncan's biggest offense in their eyes? He essentially waived big portions of the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, for states that agreed to embrace the administration's education redesign priorities, including teacher evaluation through test scores and college-and-career ready standards.

ESSA contains a long, long list of prohibitions on the secretary's role, all of which were aimed at preventing another secretary from doing anything similar, ever again. These provisions were a big priority for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. Some Democrats, in fact, tried to get them removed. Aides who wrote the law say they were hard pressed to find another statute that included a similar litany of prohibitions.  

The restrictions also say Trump's education—or any education secretary—can't issue conditional waivers, like Duncan did. That means the incoming administration would have a tough time offering states flexibility from parts of ESSA in exchange, for say, adopting a school choice program. (Trump is a school choice fan.)

And the law makes it really, really hard, if not impossible, for the secretary to make changes to the formula for doling out about $15 billion a year in Title I money, which helps school districts cover the cost of educating disadvantaged kids. That means if Trump and Co. are planning to use Title I to fulfill their campaign pledge of a $20 billion school choice program, they'll have to go through Congress, where such a proposal could have a tough time clearing procedural hurdles in the Senate.

Could a Trump—or another future—education secretary waive annual testing? It's possible. But the law requires states that want testing waivers to explain how that would maintain or improve transparency for parents, which could be a hurdle. It's unclear, of course, how faithfully the Trump administration, or the one after that, will enforce ESSA—notably both the Bush and Obama administration didn't enforce parts of the NCLB law.

So who exactly might be Trump's secretary of education, subject to all of these prohibitions? One of Trump's GOP primary rivals, Dr. Ben Carson, is a popular guess, since Trump says he listens to him on education issues. Other possibilities include Gerard Robinson, a former state chief in Florida and Virginia, who is serving on Trump's transition team, as well as Williamson Evers, who served as an assistant secretary in the department under President George W. Bush. And since Trump is likely to rely on his vice president, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, or advice on K-12, keep your eye on anyone from the Hoosier State, including Rep. Luke Messer or former state chief Tony Bennett.


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