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Top Democrat to State Chiefs: ESSA's Flexibility Isn't a 'Blank Check'

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Washington

The top Democrat in Congress on education issues told state schools chiefs Tuesday that while the Every Student Succeeds Act does give them more flexibility on setting policy and complying with federal law, it is not "a blank check."

"I remain concerned that many state [ESSA] plans fall short and risk continuing or even exacerbating inequalities for disadvantaged students," Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., an ESSA architect told the Council of Chief State School Officers Legislative Conference in a briefing at their annual legislative conference. "I remain concerned that the Department of Education is not requiring [states] to implement the law with fidelity. I remain disappointed that many states are still ignoring subgroup performance. "

He said some state accountability systems allow schools to receive "top rankings" even though vulnerable students such as minority students, English-learners, and those with disabilities may be falling behind. Such systems, Scott said, "do not live up to the promise of ESSA. ... The Department's approval of state plans continues to be cause for concern." (Scott did not specify which state plans he was referring to, but the Education Trust released a report in 2017 calling out Florida and other states.)

Scott's rhetoric was nothing new. He and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have long taken issue with state plans on their handling of vulnerable groups of students, as well as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' plan-approval process.

Carissa Moffat Milller, CCSSO's executive director, said she "totally agreed" with Scott. "It's not a blank check. We are committed to make sure we serve our kids." She said states have taken the opportunity of the law to try out new and innovative ideas.

Scott's take on the law's progress contrasted with that of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who also briefed the chiefs. Alexander, another ESSA architect, is retiring at the end of the year. But he told one state official who was bummed about his departure that he doesn't have to worry, because ESSA is now the law of the land.

"You've got the ball," Alexander said. "The most important people are the state people."

And Alexander said he has tangled with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle "who are pretty sure they know more than you do about what you're doing. ... You don't get smarter by taking a one-hour flight to D.C."

Kathy Hoffman, Arizona's newly elected state chief and a former special education teacher, asked Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the top Republican on the House education committee, whether Congress will ever approve an increase in special education funding.

Foxx told her that there have been funding boosts for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act state grants, referring to a nearly $100 million increase on the $12.3 billion program currently. But she acknowledged that IDEA has never come close to covering 40 percent of the excess cost of educating students in special education, the amount authorized in the law more than 40 years ago.


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