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Michigan Is Latest State to Accuse Trump Ed. Dept. of Overreach on ESSA


U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' home state education chief thinks her department is sending some conflicting signals when it comes to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Brian J. Whiston, the state superintendent, said the message he's heard from DeVos has been all about state leadership and leeway.

But he got a very different sound bite from Jason Botel, the acting assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. Botel called the state earlier this month to talk about what the department sees as missing from its ESSA plan, in advance of an official feedback letter.

"I didn't like the tone of the phone call," Whiston said. DeVos, he said, told chiefs in a closed meeting that, "even if you don't know all your answers in terms of your plan, file it anyway. ... The call was the opposite. We did what the secretary told us to do, and now we seem to be getting beat up."

Botel isn't the only one who sees problems with Michigan's plan. More on that below. 

Whiston said he realizes that he does need to clear up aspects of the draft plan that Michigan filed, which gives a range of options for accountability systems. The state, he said, has since settled on a "dashboard" approach and will be updating its plan. But he said some other things that Botel was asking for, including more specificity on student-achievement goals, didn't make sense.

Botel "talked about how we didn't put in long-term goals and didn't put in graduation goals," Whiston said, both inaccurate criticisms, to his mind. "He's reviewing 50 different plans, he might have been confused."

A spokeswoman for the Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Whiston's remarks.

Whiston doesn't anticipate making major changes to Michigan's proposal based on Botel's criticisms.

"The plan in Michigan was built by Michigan people really focusing in on what's best for Michigan and having maximum flexibility for solving the problems at the local level," he said. "Our plan is to continue to move forward with the Michigan plan."

And he thinks DeVos' own comments to state chiefs give him reason to stick to his guns.

"We're going to depend on what the secretary told us face to face, which is maximum flexibility, do what's best for your state," Whiston said. If "the bureaucracy within the department" won't embrace that, "at some point we may have to engage with" Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education panel, and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who heads up the House education committee.

Alexander expressed his own concerns about Botel earlier this week, saying that comments the official made to the New York Times about feedback to Delaware is evidence he doesn't really understand the law. And Foxx is holding a hearing on ESSA oversight in her committee next week. 

What's more, other state officials have taken issue with the department's ESSA feedback, which has generated wonky outrage inside and far beyond the Beltway. Laura Stefon, the chief of staff for Connecticut's department of education told the Connecticut Mirror that the state's feedback on its ESSA plan showed that, "USED appears to be resorting to very traditional and narrow ways of interpreting student and school performance. They are relying on approaches that failed under NCLB and go against the research consensus."

Botel isn't the only one who thinks the Wolverine State's proposal could use some revision.

Back in April, Brian Calley, Michigan's lieutenant governor, said the Education Department should send back the state's plan because it doesn't have high enough standards for students with disabilities. (Calley, a Republican, is a rumored gubernatorial candidate.)

And Kerry Moll, the vice president of policy at Stand for Children, a state and district advocacy organization—who also reviewed Michigan's plan—thought it had big blanks.

"We felt the plan was incomplete," Moll said of herself and others who examined the plan for the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit that promotes high academic standards. "We really struggled to review the document. There was not enough information in each of the sections."

Moll praised Michigan's push to consider things like arts and physical education in school ratings, but said the state needed to provide much more detailed information on goals, accountability, and identification of subgroups of students (think English-language learners and students in special education). More here.

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