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What Happens If a State Makes Changes to Its ESSA Plan Without Betsy DeVos' Sign-Off?

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After a game-changing election, New Mexico submitted a revamped plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. And now, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team are reviewing it.

But meanwhile, the state is already taking steps to implement its new ESSA vision, even though it hasn't gotten the federal green light. And that move could put DeVos and her team in a tough spot.

New Mexico recently told schools that were supposed to be implementing state-selected turnaround plans—which could include school closures—that they could stand down, at least for a while. Instead, the state will work with districts to support those schools on things like family engagement and attendance. The decision puts New Mexico further in line with other states, most of which aren't flagging schools for state intervention until three or four years from now.

The shift does not mean that "there are no consequences for underperformance," said Karen Trujillo, New Mexico's new secretary of education in a statement. "With high levels of support must come high levels of accountability."

The new state's new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, ran on making big revisions to the ESSA plan put in place by her predecessor, Susana Martinez, a Republican. Those included getting rid of teacher evaluation through test scores, an A through F system for grading schools, and PARCC tests. Lujan Grisham also wants to rework how—and on what timetable—the state identifies low-performing schools for more dramatic interventions.

But New Mexico's move seems to run counter to ESSA guidance, which was written by the Trump administration and published in November. That guidance says states seeking to tweak their ESSA plans must get the all-clear from the education department before they can implement changes.

New Mexico's action could put DeVos and company in a bit of an awkward position. On the one hand, DeVos is a big fan of letting states and districts make their own decisions. On the other, by jumping the gun, New Mexico appears to be running afoul of the federal guidance.

"The Department has received New Mexico's amendment request and it is still under review," said department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill. "Our expectation of all states is that they will follow the guidelines issued in November of last year that clearly indicate that amendments must be approved prior to implementation."

New Mexico's former secretary of education, Christopher Ruszkowski, who wrote the state's original ESSA plan, said the feds should work to make sure states aren't revising their plans without oversight.

"Since when can a state make a change to its federally approved plan without the United States Department of Education approving it, given the hundreds of millions of federal dollars and the years of stakeholder engagement that went into it, not just in New Mexico, but in states across the country?" he said.

"It's one thing if a state's academic indicators are trending down" and state leadership wants to make changes, Ruszkowski said. But, he said, it's a different story if achievement is on its way up. "Where is the department's overiight in saying 'hey wait a minute'?" he asked. 


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