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Civil Rights Groups Mobilize to Block Florida's ESSA Waiver Request

A national coalition of civil rights groups want U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to reject Florida's soon-to-arrive waiver request that will ask to be relieved from key pieces of the Every Student Succeeds Act dealing with the nation's most vulnerable and historically disadvantaged students.

Approving Florida's request, activists say, will set a disturbing precedent for other states.  

"Sometimes it feels like we're playing three-card monte or a game of cat and mouse," said Liz King the Director of Education Policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She said approving the waiver request will effectively make ESSA toothless.  "Everytime we make progress, someone finds a way to cut it back."   

The waiver, still in draft form, asks for the state to be allowed to forego using minority student subgroups and the results of English-learners' language proficiency exams in its statewide accountability system. And because Florida education officials say English is the state's official language, it doesn't want to conduct standardized tests in recently-arrived immigrant students' native languages.  

Those provisions were the biggest victories for national civil rights activists when ESSA was passed in 2015 and they fear that if Secretary DeVos approves the waiver this fall, other states, eager to break free from decades of federal badgering over the nation's stagnant achievement gap, would follow suit. 

The Florida education agency gathered feedback on the request over several weeks and it's expected to soon be considered by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.  It has broad support from the state's district superintendents who want to keep the state's politically volatile accountability system mostly intact.  

This week, the Leadership Conference, made up of 23 minority rights groups, sent a tersely worded letter to all 51 state superintendents urging them to follow the law as written rather than follow in Florida's footsteps.  

"Low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities, English-learners, and Native children have been left behind for far too long and deserve no less than robust and thorough state policy to ensure an excellent and equitable education," the letter said.  

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) also sent a letter to congressional leaders and Secretary DeVos that more specifically urges her to reject the waiver request outright since, they say, the request flies in the face of ESSA's civil rights legacy and circumvents the state's legal obligations to English-language learners. 

And a group of local civil rights activists in Florida will ask next week for a sit-down meeting with Florida department officials.  

The department said in an e-mailed statement that they welcome any feedback to its plans. 

"We appreciate everyone who took the time to submit input on Florida's ESSA draft state plan," said Meghan Collins, a spokeswoman for the department.   

In its waiver request, the department said their accountability system is meant to improve the outcomes of all students, rather than students with a particular ethnicity, special need or language requirement.  Instead of English proficiency exams, the state wants to use its English Language Arts test to measure ELL students' langauge acquisition.

But the civil rights groups say that flies in the face of decades of research regarding how to close achievement gaps between minority students and their peers.  Because the state for so many decades segregated its schools and denied a litany of basic education services to minority students and students with special needs, the state is obligated to provide tailored remedies to those groups' unique needs. 

"If this waiver is approved, there will be no accountability whatsover for ELL students' progress in English Language acquisition," said Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a civil rights activist, education consultant and former school board member in the Miami-Dade district.  "I think the department has been misadvised by folks who are not up on the research related to ELL issues and subgroup accountability issues."

One out of every 10 students in the state qualifies for ELL services.  

The waiver request will create a political dilemma for Secretary DeVos who has been criticized both for her theories on the department's role in upholding civil rights and her department's feedback to states' submitted plans. 

"One thing we're learning through the ESSA implementation process is that too often the decision makers at the federal, state and local level are disconnected from children who aren't getting a fair shakeout from policy decisions," King said.  


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