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ESSA Plans Have to Follow the Law, Not Conform to My Beliefs, DeVos Says



U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told senators during a Tuesday hearing on the federal budget that if states' Every Student Succeeds Act plans follow the law, then it's her obligation to approve them

In exchanges with Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., DeVos indicated that her personal views on states' plans would not influence her decisions about them. She also declined to engage with Murphy's questions at the appropritions subcommittee hearing about where she would draw the line on approval for state school improvement plans. Both lawmakers also are on the Senate education committee, where Alexander is the chairman.

During his question period at the hearing, Alexander (one of ESSA's main architects) asked DeVos whether she would would "follow the law, or be tempted to use your own policy ideas in approving or rejecting state plans." DeVos responded, "Senator, we will be following the law and approve plans as Congress has intended."

That wasn't quite good enough for Murphy. He repeatedly asked DeVos if she would reject an ESSA plan if she found the school improvement strategies lacking. At one point, he asked her if she would approve a plan in which the improvement strategies for schools would be to repaint the walls. DeVos declined to answer the question directly.

"The plans will have to be approved" if they follow the law, DeVos told Murphy. "Whether I agree with everything in the plans is another question."

So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have turned in their ESSA plans. The law gives states a good deal of flexibility in making various K-12 policy decisions, and prohibits the education secretary from dictating things like the structure of teacher evaluations and school improvement strategies. Earlier this year, Congress tossed out ESSA accountability regulations written by the Obama adminstration that governed school turnarounds, among other policies. 

School improvement strategies under ESSA must cover certain types of schools, including high schools with a graduation rate below 67 percent, the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools, and schools with consistently underperforming subgroups of students. And districts would have control over some school turnarounds, while in other situations, individual schools would decide how to improve their results. 

Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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