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DeVos Education Department Criticizes States Again for Their ESSA Approach

UPDATED

Not for the first time, a member of the Trump administration has expressed unhappiness with how states are handling the Every Student Succeeds Act. The most recent instance involves how states are expected to detail school spending.

On Wednesday, Jim Blew, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education, said that expectations around a new requirement for districts to publish per-student spending figures for each school likely won't be met. So far, 17 states have reported it, but a lot more data is coming. This school spending information mandated under ESSA—which states must include on report cards for each school—is coming soon, and while advocates have high hopes for it, many school leaders worry it could confuse the public and won't lead more equitable spending. 


Click Here for a Guide on ESSA's School-by-School Spending Mandate.


Speaking at an event on school funding hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, Blew stressed initially that "we hope it's a game-changer" because, in his view, the general understanding of how money flows to schools is poor.

However, Blew then said, "We're all going to be really disappointed at the first crack at this." After noting that one or two states are the exception and have done a good job, he said, "Most of them are trying to hide their website as far underneath as possible, so nobody ever finds it, because if they look at it, they're just going to be confused. ... We hope the next iteration will be better." (Blew did not say which states the department believes have done a good job meeting this requirement.)

Blew went on to say that the Education Department is planning to put out information about how states are handling this, which he said could include "maybe shaming some of the really bad examples." He also didn't sound particularly surprised, stating that when it comes to the way many education administrators have typically acted in the past, "there's a reason why the establishment has obfuscated where the money is going."

You can watch video above for Blew's remarks, which begin after roughly three hours and 16 minutes. 

In response, Carissa Moffat Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a statement that in addition to numerous states already reporting this data, states remain committed to "continue efforts to improve the reporting so all stakeholders can make informed decisions." The group highlighted states such as Delaware and Georgia that have produced good work on this front. 

"State education leaders are committed to transparency of school-level spending data and have dedicated a tremendous amount of effort to publish this first set of reports," Miller said. 

And Leslie Boggs, the president of the National PTA, responded that "most states are on the right track" to providing this info to parents. Boggs added pointedly, "The Department of Education should be providing more support to states. Not doing so is an abdication of the department's responsibility."

Here's why we said this sort of thing has happened before: Last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ripped into states for what she said was a lack of ambition in their ESSA plans. "I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law," DeVos said in a speech at a CCSSO gathering. Several state chiefs quickly shot back that DeVos was off-base in her remarks. 

In her speech this year at CCSSO, by contrast, DeVos took a softer approach, encouraging states to take full advantage of ESSA's flexibilities but not criticizing their work. 

It's not as if the Obama adminstration totally shied away from criticizing states. However, one of the hallmarks Trump Education Department has been to give states a lot of leeway on policy and other matters (after all, Trump ran on a promise to return local control to schools). So it's striking whenever DeVos or one of her top staffers criticizes what states are up to, particularly under ESSA, which was passed in large part on the understanding that it would return more power to states and school districts. 

Blew's pledge to essentially put a scarlet letter on states the department thinks is falling down on the job also bears watching. 

As useful as this new information might be to parents, advocates, unions, and others, it's important not to simply look at the numbers themselves for any particular school and jump to conclusions.

As our colleague Daarel Burnette II wrote in our new guide to ESSA's school-by-school spending mandate: "By themselves, school-by-school spending figures won't capture a range of other factors that can be crucial to a school's performance, the challenges it faces, and built-in costs. Those can include the special needs of that school's student body and even things like geography and transportation that can drive up expenses." 


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