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Innovation, Civil Rights, and DeVos Focus of Senate ESSA Hearing


State education chiefs at a Senate hearing Tuesday outlined how they are using the Every Student Succeeds Act to initiate and expand on efforts to improve college- and career-readiness and help low-performing schools. Senators, meanwhile, expressed concerns along partisan lines about the proper balance of power between Washington and the states. 

Congress has been mostly silent this year on public school policy in terms of hearings and other events. But Tuesday's hearing at the Senate education committee allowed for Candice McQueen of Tennessee, Christopher Ruszkowski of New Mexico, and John White of Louisiana to share their approaches to ESSA and how it was affecting their approach to public school more broadly. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, specifically praised the states represented by the chiefs testifying at the hearing. For example, he highlighted his home state of Tennessee's work under ESSA to determine whether students are ready for the military or the workforce after high school, not just college. He also gave a thumbs-up to New Mexico for increasing access to services ranging from extra math help to early education through its ESSA plan.

"These states ... have taken the most advantage of the flexibility we offered under the law in creating innovative plans," Alexander said. 

Tennessee chief Candice McQueen laid out how the state would take a "more nuanced" approach to schools with struggling groups of students. (More here on that issue of subgroups in Tennessee's ESSA plan.) She said the state's new "ready graduate" indicator would rely on a range of data points, from Advanced Placement courses to industry certification, to measure students' preparedness for various options. 

"This will better enable us to ensure that schools are equipping students for what comes next after high school," McQueen said.

And Louisiana chief John White highlighted the state's work on teacher policy, from his state's teacher-mentor program to a new "growth to mastery" target that students must hit for teachers to obtain top ratings. In the new ESSA environment, he said, states must draw on successful practices from other states (he highlighted Massachusetts) and around the world.

"An A in Louisiana should be an A in any state in this country," White said.

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee's top Democrat, used the opportunity of the hearing to criticize how ESSA is being handled in Washington. She said she was disappointed that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tweaked her initially promising feedback process by making it less transparent. And Murray scolded the Education Department for being too permissive about which plans get approved, saying that the secretary's recent comments about the best approach for states to take under ESSA was troubling.

"State plans still have to comply with the federal guardrails in ESSA," Murray said. Other Democrats joined her in voicing concern about federal oversight of ESSA. 

David Steiner, the director of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy and a member of the Maryland state school board, also criticized some ESSA plans for often containing very vague and potentially unhelpful definitions of "consistently underperforming" groups of students. 

Murray also pressed Alexander about when DeVos would appear again before the committee; Alexander responded that they could discuss this issue in private. DeVos has not appeared before the House or Senate education committee since her controversial confirmation hearing in January. 

ESSA's Partisan Divide

In fact, both Republicans and Democrats have taken issue with how DeVos has handled states' plans for ESSA.

After DeVos' department initially took issue with Delaware's blueprint for the law, Alexander (one of ESSA's primary authors) said acting assistant secretary Jason Botel was too heavy-handed with such criticisms, and even said Botel appeared not to have read the law carefully. Although states have made some relatively small changes to their plans after consulting with the department, including altering how science tests factor into school accountability, DeVos has approved ESSA plans from 14 states and the District of Columbia without a great deal of public fuss. 

Murray—and other Democrats—have argued that DeVos has been too permissive and has approved ESSA plans that don't actually follow the law. In fact, Murray recently said DeVos' oversight of the shift to ESSA has "failed" in several ways. As part of their broader attacks against DeVos, Murray and her Democratic colleagues have also criticized her for being too lax when it comes to looking out for the interests of historically disadvantaged groups of students and conducting oversight in general.

For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., used the hearing to blast the GOP move last spring to toss out ESSA accountability rules crafted by President Barack Obama's administration in 2016. She said those rules actually gave states more flexibility under the law. 

"Scrapping ESSA accountability rules did not unleash innovation and flexibility," Warren said.

Click on the links below for more information on how state ESSA plans handle:

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