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Betsy DeVos' Lenient Attitude to ESSA Plans Might Showcase Her Political Smarts


States frequently and successfully flexed their muscles when working with the federal government to get their Every Student Succeeds Act plans approved—but whether Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was smart to let them take that approach or often just let states off the hook is up for debate. 

Those are two main conclusions from a new study of the first round of ESSA plan approvals from Megan Duff, a research assistant at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Priscilla Wohlstetter, a Teachers College distinguished research professor. In "Negotiating Intergovernmental Relations Under ESSA" Duff and Wohlstetter say that instead of a devolution of power, their study "suggests [the U.S. Department of Education] may be growing savvier in its implementation of policy" by relying on negotiations instead of sanctions. However, they reached another broad conclusion about how DeVos handled ESSA blueprints.

"We are struck by the blanket approval of all plans, even those that remained in conflict with some objectives of the law, suggesting the federal government has, for now, left the carrots and sticks behind," Duff and Wohlstetter write. "While the law itself grants states increased flexibility in some areas, [the federal government's] approval of all plans ... suggests the current administration may be granting even more power to states than the law prescribes."

Their study also examined how often states received various types of feedback from the Education Department about their plans, and what their responses were. States' interactions with DeVos' team varied widely on this front, according to Duff and Wohlstetter. Check out the two charts below to see how that feedback played out. 

Two other quick conclusions from the study:

  • The department "refined its feedback process" as well as the way it phrased certain feedback, and used Vermont as an example of the latter.
  • States appeared to learn from each other, as in the case of Colorado, which the researchers note quoted extensively from Connecticut's plan that was approved months beforehand. 

Ongoing ESSA Dispute

Through its decisions on things like waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top grants, President Barack Obama's administration hoped states would ultimately adopt its preferred approaches to issues like standards and teacher evaluations. However, some in the education community concluded that the Obama team too often crossed the line and effectively tried to coerce states into certain actions. We don't know, of course, how the Obama Education Department would have handled individual state ESSA plans. But there's a specific political reason that ESSA, signed into law by Obama in 2015, is sometimes described (particularly by conservatives) as a historic transfer of power from the federal government to states. That's the declaration Duff and Wohlstetter aren't necessarily on board with.

The research also underscores a fundamental disagreement about federal education law between the Trump administration and Democrats in Congress.

As Duff and Wohlstetter allude to, DeVos has frequently said that she supports states taking advantage of the flexibility ESSA offers them on various fronts—although she hasn't always been thrilled with what they've actually done. She and her team have also stressed that her department has only approved plans that follow the law.

Democrats vigorously disagree with that last point. Early in the Trump administration, but less so in recent months, they've criticized DeVos for giving states too much leeway in their ESSA plans, particularly when it comes to ensuring that schools with struggling subgroups of students are flagged as needing improvement. However, Democrats have had little recourse other than publicly airing their concerns and grilling DeVos about the topic. 

What might have helped inform the DeVos team's general approach to ESSA plans was a public disagreement in 2017 between her department and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and one of ESSA's main authors. When he thought that the department was overstepping its authority with respect to Delaware's ESSA plan, he publicly rebuked the move, going so far as saying that one of her top deputies hadn't read ESSA carefully. Delaware ended up being the first state to get its ESSA plan approved by DeVos.

Remember: The Duff-Wohstetter analysis only looks at the first round of ESSA plans that were approved—the majority of states were in the second round. (The first- and second-round deadlines were in April and September 2017, respectively.)  And just because states took advantage of flexibility afforded to them by DeVos' team doesn't mean there weren't also some major problem spots along the way. 

Florida, for example, had long-running disagreements with the department about its ESSA proposal before it was approved. In response to department feedback, Florida included English-language proficiency in a revised plan, and also created a federal accountability index—separate from its prominent state-level A-F model—that took into account student subgroup performance, not just overall school grades as the state originally proposed. Even after the state made those changes, it still took quite a bit of time before DeVos' team gave Florida's plan the all-clear

Read the full report below:

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