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Conservative Group Pushes ESSA Agenda Among State Leaders

This post was written by Andrew Ujifusa and originally posted on the Politics K-12 blog

Amidst various players like the teachers' unions looking to influence the Every Student Succeeds Act at the state level, a group led former Secretary of Education William Bennett is seeking to make its mark.

Conservative Leaders for Education, which formed last July to push for accountability, high academic standards, local control, and school choice under ESSA, officially announced Monday it had signed up four state lawmakers and a state school board as new members in five new states: Alabama, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The five new members of the organization are: 

  • Colorado Senator Owen Hill
  • Alabama Board Rep. Mary Scott Hunter
  • Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner
  • Wisconsin Senator Luther Olsen
  • Nevada Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury 

All of them are Republicans. And all, except for Hunter, are leaders of their respective legislative education committees. Last July, the group indicated that they had signed up lawmakers from all these states, except Nevada, but didn't name names. 

During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, our own Lisa Stark moderated a panel discussion about early education in which Lehner of Ohio participated. Click here to watch some of that panel.

In an interview, Bennett, the group's chairman, said the group wouldn't be developing model legislation. But he said the participating lawmakers would share bills they are working on, as well as thoughts on which policy approaches might work well in their states and which ones might run into problems. Conservative Leaders for Education, he said, is looking for "agents of policy change" in statehouses when it comes to ESSA.

"We're going about this with all deliberate speed. We're being very careful about the people we're selecting," said Bennett, who served as President Ronald Reagan's education secretary. "These are all people that are very committed to the issues."

Bennett said he had discussed the group's work with several well-known players in the conservative K-12 policy world, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Thomas B. Fordham President Chester E. "Checker" Finn, and Center for Education reform founder Jeanne Allen. None of those people, however, are formally involved with Conservative Leaders for Education at this point, Bennett said.

The group's expansion represents the jockeying going on to shape how states approach school improvement, transparency, and accountability under the law. Remember, ESSA gives state lawmakers significantly more power over those decisions than they've had in recent years. Back in July, Bennett said he was worried that not only do Democrats talk like they "own" ESSA, "in many ways, they have owned it." 

As we reported just over a week ago, the National Education Association is pushing its members hard to make sure states don't just make a few tweaks under ESSA and call it a day. And they're praising states that have adopted a "dashboard" approach to accountability that doesn't require a single, summative rating for schools. (That approach might not get the approval of the U.S. Department of Education, however.) So it's easy to find contrasts between the NEA and Bennett's groups in terms of ESSA priorities.

You can watch members of the Conservative Leaders for Education discuss their views on education and ESSA below:


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