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Sen. Lamar Alexander Tells Governors to Hold Their Ground on ESSA


In a spine-stiffening rallying cry, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee, told dozens of governors gathered here Sunday to push back against any attempt by the federal government to shape education policy in the coming years.

The recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act, which he helped author, gives governors and state legislators wide latitude to design their own teacher and school accountability systems, among other things, he said during the annual National Governors Association winter meeting.

"The federal government has defined power under this law," he said. "States have numerous and infinite power. We should adhere to the principles of federalism here."

The speech at the JW Marriott came just days before the Senate education committee is to hold a confirmation hearing for acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., who President Barack Obama has nominated to be secretary. "I urged him to appoint somebody and I told him I'd make sure he was confirmed," Alexander said.

Assisted by a bare-bones, black-and-white Power Point presentation, Alexander said governors and their education secretaries should be on alert for anything that hints of a federal mandate, statutory waiver, regulatory peer review, or plan approval.

"Just say no if you don't like it," he said. And if the federal government tries to stand its ground, he said, sue.

Shortly before the session, the governors association announced that it has formed an ESSA implementation task force with several national education groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National PTA. Alexander said that coalition should use its weight to push back should the Education Department step outside of the "defined role" ESSA has given it.

"The federal government should consult frequently and meaningfully with state governments only where guidance is needed," he said.

Alexander said state politicians were on the right track to building better learning standards and ushering in accountability systems before the Obama administration offered incentives to implement its education policy priorities, including through waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. This whole incentive process amounted to what Alexander referred to as a "federal board of education." Governors shouldn't be clumsy with their new powers, Alexander said. "ESSA isn't worth the paper it's printed on unless it's implemented right," he said. "The federal government will take these powers right back."

The dozens of governors in attendance, sitting in a U-shape around Alexander, mostly praised his work to push the ESSA legislation through Congress, while also plugging their own initiatives and hinting at coming challenges.

Washington's Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said the new authority given to states under ESSA will help his legislators deal with a teacher gap.

Kentucky's recently elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said he regretted that the state was the first in the country to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a move his education department is currently working to change.

And Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad hinted at a brewing battle between state and local officials over standards, accountability systems, and school turnaround. After regretting Iowa being one of the last states in the country to adopt statewide standards, he said, "There needs to a partnership between state and local officials."

After the meeting, the governors were rushed off to the White House where they were to have a black-tie dinner with President Barack Obama and his wife.

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