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Betsy DeVos' ESSA Feedback, Approvals, Cause More Consternation in States

States' crafting of their accountabiltiy plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act was politically contentious in some states, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' feedback and approval of those plans has further fanned the flames in recent days. 

ESSA gave states more flexibility to craft their accountability systems, but because many state education departments are politically weak and it's not necessarily who, in states, is in charge of education policy, spats broke out between state boards, state chiefs, governors and legislatures over the details of their plans.  Some state officials went so far to write DeVos a letter urging her to reject their states' plans.  

Several of those plans have now received feedback from DeVos, and a handful of others have been given her stamp of approval. 

With the 2018 legislative session in full-swing and many state boards meeting again for the first time this year, the federal activity has reignited some of these disputes. 

  • California's state board of education last week said it will only clarify parts of the state's plan, and Gov. Jerry Brown said earlier this month in his State of the State address that he will work to build the capacity of local officials to turn failing schools around. That upset many advocates in the state who described California's accountability system and its associated "dashboard" as weak and difficult to understand. And it led to this headline in the L.A. Times:  "When it comes to education policy, it's 'the California way' vs. Betsy DeVos." 
  • Maryland's plan was written by its Democratic-controlled legislature and protested by the state's board members and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for inadequately holding low-performing schools accountable. In response to DeVos' approval of the plan last week, Hogan's press secretary, Shareese N. Churchill, said in a written statement to the Baltimore Sun. "The governor has made it clear that the ESSA plan forced on Maryland's children is unacceptable, thanks to the legislature's law mandating weak accountability standards that will trap kids in failing schools. This law flies in the face of President Obama's intent in creating ESSA, which was to increase accountability and prioritize academic excellence. Maryland now has the deeply disappointing distinction of having the second least accountable school system in the nation. That may be good enough for some, but it's not good enough for the governor." 
  • DeVos' feedback to Mississippi's accountability system set off a debate at last week's board meeting over how much the state's controversial accountability system will change again. DeVos told the state that, among other things, its treatment of student subgroups' test scores and English Language Proficiency test scores is not allowable under the law. District leaders at the meeting expressed frustration that the state's cut scores and some of the accountability system's key components could change yet again, after a series of other changes in recent years. (The department said it will try to avoid changing cut scores.) "It's not fair to the school district and schools working to get their scores up to have students arrive who can't speak English" and be counted in the annual grading process," state Rep. Tom Miles, a Democrat, said, according to Mississippi Today.
  • After DeVos approved Wisconsin's plan, Gov. Scott Walker took the opportunity to attack state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers who led the design of the plan and has filed to run for governor this fall on a Democratic ticket. The plan "met the bare minimum requirements of the law" and lacked "innovative solutions," Walker's spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  Evers, she said, "should step up to the plate and offer solutions that do more for Wisconsin's kids."

All of the political warfare over states' plans matters greatly when it comes to funding, parental support and stability, experts have told me.  

In addition, 36 states' governors and three-fourths of states' legislators are up for election this fall.  

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