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As Congress Probes the Shift to ESSA Under DeVos, Here's What to Watch For


On Tuesday, the House education committee will hold a hearing on how the Every Student Succeeds Act is unfolding in states and districts. On this general issue, much of the focus (rightly) has been on how Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee chairman, are reacting to what U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team are doing on ESSA oversight. Importantly, Alexander isn't happy, and says the department seems to be ignoring the law.

And a GOP aide said Monday that Rep. Virginia Foxx., R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House committee, has put DeVos' department "on notice" about concerns lawmakers have as far as federal feedback to states' plans. "Department of Education overreach will play a role in the hearing, not just [coming] from the chairwoman but from other members," the GOP aide said.

But what about Democrats? How will they talk about ESSA at the hearing? Does that fact that Alexander and other conservatives are annoyed mean that, using simple political logic, that Democrats are thrilled? 

The short answer to the last question is: It's tricky. A Democratic aide told us that while the department's ESSA plan feedback is inconsistent in several respects, it's been detailed and thoughtful in some instances. That presents a bit of a political quandary for Democrats. 

"The narrative is definitely a challenge. I don't think anyone expected the department to step in and provide meaningful feedback and ask states hard questions, however inconsistent the feedback has been," the Democratic aide said. "For our side, it's a little challenging because there's so much bad happening at the department outside of feedback on ESSA state plans." 

The message from Democrats on Tuesday is likely to be that, contrary to what Republicans have been saying about the law, the tussle over ESSA feedback shows that in fact the law does not represent a total devolution of power to the states, and that states would benefit from clear guidance and boundaries from the department. Democrats have lamented the Republican-controlled Congress' move to toss the Obama administration's ESSA accountability regulations out the window earlier this year. 

"DeVos cannot deliver on the promise of 'let a thousand flowers bloom' because that's not what the law is," the Democratic aide told us. "Congress expects the secretary to do her job and only approve plans that pass muster. The law has requirements for a reason."

Notably absent from the list of those testifying at this hearing is anyone from the U.S. Department of Education, although someone from the Government Accountability Office will talk to lawmakers.

Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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