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House Lawmakers Cast a Critical Eye on ESSA Oversight

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Washington

Republican and Democratic lawmakers had a clear message this week for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: We're watching you very closely as you deal with the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

At a House education committee hearing, which DeVos didn't attend, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle Tuesday expressed concern about the consistency of feedback from the U.S. Department of Education to states about ESSA plans.

GOP legislators also quizzed state and local education officials about how they were taking advantage of new policy breathing room under the federal education law. Meanwhile, Democrats stressed the importance of federal oversight and how states had to ensure protections for underserved students.

Funding was also a very sore spot for Democratic lawmakers and those education officials who testified. Both criticized proposed budget cuts of about $2 billion in President Donald Trump's spending blueprint and in a House education funding bill that would end teacher-training and class-size reduction programs.

Democrats also extracted a pledge from committee chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., to ask DeVos or one of her representatives to discuss ESSA before the committee. (No one from DeVos' department testified Tuesday.)

Foxx referred indirectly to the Education Department's handling of ESSA when she said she and the committee "will be watching to ensure that Washington keeps its distance" on states' plans for the law. And she stressed that the new federal education law was only a part of what state and local school leaders had to deal with.

"We have this big program and suddenly everybody thinks it's the answer," Foxx said, in a reference to ESSA. "We have to trust people at the local level."

However, whether Foxx thinks DeVos is inappropriately intruding into states' plans is unclear. When asked after the hearing whether she was concerned about how DeVos was handling states' plans for the law, Foxx responded, "We haven't talked to too many states about it, so I just haven't had contact with them."

DeVos and her top official for K-12, acting Assistant Secretary Jason Botel, have spurred controversy and in some cases surprise for how they've responded to state ESSA plans. For example, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and one of ESSA's authors, criticized Botel last week for stepping outside the limits the law places on Washington. States have also expressed anxiety about the Education Department's approach.

Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., raised the DeVos team's approach to ESSA by saying he's heard from Kentucky education leaders that the Education Department's messages on ESSA have been confusing. And Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said, "There is a lot of confusion out there, and we need people from the department ... to answer questions about, where are we going?"

Gail Pletnick, the superintendent of the Dysart Unified district in Arizona, told Guthrie, "It's important to have that consistent feedback because then, in turn, we can move on with the implementation of ESSA."

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the department's responses to states has been appropriate in certain instances and fits under the law, although he said mixed messages from the department and lack of clear legal guardrails were hurting states. He  lamented that Congress earlier this year tossed out Obama-era accountability rules for ESSA.

"ESSA is not and never has been a free-for-all," Scott said. "Many state plans leave much to be desired."

Under questioning from Republicans, Pletnick and Carey Wright, the Mississippi state chief, emphasized how their states' approaches to education and accountability were evolving under ESSA. Wright, for example, detailed how Mississippi is building career and technical education into its plans for the law. 

Both Pletnick and Wright backed up comments from Scott by saying that proposals to cut Title II aid would greatly harm their efforts under ESSA. Wright told lawmakers that eliminating Title II funding "would devastate our efforts to improve teacher preparation and quality, particularly in high-need school districts that struggle to attract and retain qualified teachers."

Problems with states' ESSA plans, as well as with the department's ESSA feedback, also came up at the hearing.

Phillip Lovell, a vice president at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which advocates for disadvantaged students, said that many states either are ignoring or violating ESSA in several areas of their state plans. He cited consequences for schools that don't test at least 95 percent of all students, and how different groups of students are identified as needing additional support. 

"Students shouldn't have to fail on everything in order to qualify for additional support," Lovell said.


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