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Here's What Key Lawmakers Told State Chiefs About ESSA, Budget

Alexander at RNC.jpgWashington

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told a roomful of state education chiefs Tuesday that he'll push to fund the new block grant Congress created under the Every Student Succeeds Act to help districts cover the cost of health, safety, technology programs, and moer. And he said he looks forward to the kind of innovation and change the new law can bring to states.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., also an ESSA architect and the top Democrat on the House education committee, challenged states to develop plans that will look out for historically disadvantaged groups of students.

And Scott told those at the Council of Chief State School Officers' legislative conference that  he's deeply concerned about President Donald Trump's preliminary budget blueprint, which was released last week and proposes a deep, $9 billion cut to the department's nearly $70 billion budget.

"I hope that you're as troubled as I am with the administration's blueprint," Scott said. "It appears that the president and congressional Republicans want to pay for new tax cuts and defense spending with deep cuts in educational programs. After school. Professional development. Pell grants."

All of this could impact ESSA implementation, he added. "The administration wants you to shoulder the burden of new federal requirements without the necessary federal investment."

And as for the block grant created under the new law? Scott wasn't optimistic that it will see any money at all.  

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The block grant is one of the most closely watched programs in ESSA, in part because it is so flexible. Districts could use the money, known as the Enhanced Academic Enrichment Grants, or "Title IV" of the law, for everything from school safety programs to student health to arts education to technology. ESSA authorizes—Congress-speak for "recommends"—more than $1.5 billion for the program. And the law allows states and districts to transfer as much of their money for teacher quality (aka "Title II" funds) into the block grant as they want.

But it's unclear if Congress will be able to provide significant funding for the program. A bill approved by the Senate panel that oversees education spending provided only $300 million for the initiative. And that was before Trump was elected on a promise to rein in domestic spending.

Alexander said that Congress had provided new flexibility but "less money to be flexible with." He noted that ESSA seeks more money for the programs that make up the block grant than they are getting currently. "We need to match the aspirations with our appropriations."

The Trump administration, which is bent on slimming down domestic spending in order to boost funding for the military, hasn't yet said how much money it wants to see for the block grant. The program was left out of the president's bare-bones budget blueprint released last week, but more details are expected in coming weeks and months.

Title IV wasn't the only program that came up at the CCSSO meeting. Minnesota's chief, Brenda Casselius, pushed for fully funding special education state grants. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government is supposed to pick up 40 percent of the excess cost of educating a student in special education, but it's never even come close to that.

Trump's budget would make major cuts to other education programs, but keep special education funding level.

Alexander said he would see what he could do about pumping up money for the special education program.  "You're right about that, we should do that," he told Casselius. "We'll do our best."

He also told Steve Staples, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, that he'd try to look out for Impact Aid in the budget. That program helps school districts make up for lost tax revenue due to a federal presence like a military base or Native American reservation. The Trump budget, like the Obama budget, calls for cutting a $66 million piece of the more than $1 billion program.

ESSA Implementation

Scott told the group he wanted to see state leadres make the most of ESSA flexibility to help all kids—including English-language learners and students in special education—reach their potential.

 "The new law gives us the opportunity to charter a new path, one that focuses on equity of educational opportunity," Scott said. "Collectively, we're at a crossroads. Will ESSA be used to fill the promise of education for all students, or will the lack of federal enforcement and the lack of state local capacity and lack of political will to do the right thing turn the clock back?"

Scott bemoaned Congress' decision to scrap the Obama administration's rules for accountability under ESSA, using the Congressional Review Act. He said those rules provided states with needed clarity on the law's implementation. He said he wished groups like the CCSSSO—which had nice things to say about the Obama administration's final rules, but didn't take a position on the move to get rid of them—had spoken up.

And Scott said it concerns him that CCSSO—a non-overnmental organization—gets to create model applications for states to use in submitting their ESSA plans.

Scott also told the group that when it comes to ESSA, the policy details matter. "I urge you lean heavily on the department to make sure that technical assistance and oversight are meaningful," he said.

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said he didn't think getting rid of the Obama administration's rules had any impact on states' implementation of the law. States, he said, are still reaching out to groups to build their ESSA plans and crafting approaches that benefit all students.

And Alexander defended Congress' decision to strike accountability regulations for the law written by the Obama administration.

"Some people misguidedly say there's not accountability," Alexander said. But in his view, that's wrong. "There's state accountability. And to me, that's the best kind of accountability. We've had over the last 30 or 40 years the rise of the national board and now the fall of the national school board." He told states he's looking to see the "innovation" they come up with, now that they have a freer hand. 

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House education committee, also addressed the group, and put a heavy emphasis on a slimmed down federal role, noting that education is not spelled out as a federal responsibility in the U.S. Constitution, attendees said.


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