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Trump Ed. Dept. Changes Process for ESSA Feedback

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UPDATED

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team have gotten big blowback for their responses to states on their plans for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. State officials and even some of DeVos' GOP allies in Congress have said the department is being nit-picky, inconsistent, and going beyond the bounds of ESSA, which sought to rein in the federal policy footprint.

So now the agency is changing the process, Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the department confirmed. Instead of just sending letters to states on their plans, the department will first have two-hour phone conversations with states and go over any the issues that peer reviewers had.

If states are able to explain a potential hiccup to the department's satisfaction, the department may not mention it in the state's official feedback letter, which would come out after the phone call.

The new process seems designed to give states a chance to answer the feds' questions about their plans before official feedback is made public.

"The department is committed to working with states to help ensure their plans align with the statutory requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act," Hill said in a statement. "Part of that commitment, in addition to the required peer reviews, is maintaining an open dialogue with state leaders. That feedback is intended to provide an informal opportunity to address any potential concerns prior to plans being submitted to Secretary DeVos for review. Secretary DeVos looks forward to reviewing plans and approving every plan that complies with the law." 

The change raises a number of potential concerns. First off, nine of the 17 ESSA plans turned in so far already have been given their feedback, including Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Oregon, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee.  And another 33 states will turn in their plans later this fall. The states that have already gotten responses may feel like the department is changing the rules in the middle of the game.

What's more, it's unclear if the public would have access to the information discussed on these phone calls between states and the department. One of the biggest concerns ESSA's architects had with the Obama administration's waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, which ESSA replaced, was that different states were getting different deals. And most of that back-and-forth was happening behind closed doors.

ESSA included language saying that the process for plan approval needs to be more transparent. There are bound to be concerns that this new process would make it harder for reporters, civil rights advocates, and even other state officials to understand the department's reasoning in reviewing plans.

Reminder: The department has angered Republicans in Congress and state officials for going overboard in its first nine respones to state ESSA plans. Delaware's letter, which questioned the ambitiousness of the state's goals and the use of Advanced Placement tests to measure college-readiness, was seen as particularly problematic. States have begun to revise their ESSA plans and are not always taking the department's feedback to heart


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