Local Control? States Grumble at Trump Education Department’s Criticism of Education Plans

U.S. Education secretary Betsy DeVos has touted a move toward the end of federal control of education, but more states are finding the Trump education department – much like that of former President Barack Obama – is still attempting to control their decisions from Washington, D.C.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee heard complaints for more than two hours Tuesday from state education officials about the DeVos department’s criticism of their state education plans – still required to be submitted under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bill that was passed in December of 2015 as a replacement for No Child Left Behind.

As Education Week reports, for example, federal officials told Delaware it could not use Advanced Placement courses as a measure of “college- and career-readiness,” although the same plan was accepted for Louisiana and Tennessee.

Delaware was also told its stated long-term academic goals were not “ambitious” enough, though that term is not defined in ESSA, and that its plan to use science and social studies test scores for accountability purposes would violate the federal law.

A Nevada education official said his state was told to revise its education plan by removing its science tests as indicators of core academic achievement, school quality, and student success.

Federal education officials told New Mexico the state should specify its plan to ensure low-income and minority students do not have disproportionately higher rates of less experienced or ineffective teachers. Additionally, DeVos’s department said the state should more clearly describe its plan to ensure all students are prepared for advanced math in 8th grade, as ESSA requires.

Similarly, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Tennessee were told they could not use their science test scores to prove accountability in the same way as their reading and math scores, and federal officials informed New Jersey it must be more specific about the criteria for removing schools from the “lowest performing” list.

At one point, as Education Week reports, the federal education department released what was considered a clarifying statement, that its review feedback to states “is not an approval or denial of a state plan; however, a state is still required to submit a plan that complies with all statutory requirements.”

To date, 16 states and the District of Columbia have filed their education plans, seeking approval from the federal government under ESSA. In a statement about her department’s review of state plans, DeVos said:

I am committed to returning decision-making power back to states and setting the Department up to serve the support and monitoring roles intended by Congress. The Department worked with states to ensure their plans included all statutorily required components laid out in the Department’s revised template. I commend officials from these states for their efforts to ensure their plans were ready for the peer-review process, and for their continued work to improve education for all students.

The New York Times noted irritation with the DeVos department’s actions on the education plans, particularly on the matter with Delaware:

In the department’s letter to Delaware—which incited the most outrage from conservative observers—[Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Jason] Botel took aim at the state’s plan to halve the number of students not meeting proficiency rates in the next decade. Such a goal would have resulted in only one-half to two thirds of some groups of students achieving proficiency, he noted.

The department deemed those long-term goals, as well as those for English-language learners, not ambitious, and directed the state to revise its plans to make them more so.

Cato’s education policy director Neal McCluskey writes he would have thought the Trump administration would have been more deferential to states with ESSA. He concludes:

And so we remain pretty much where we were under the Obama administration in education, and where we are with every law that leaves it to regulatory agencies to fill in the meaning of crucial terms: with states, localities, and the people at the mercy of bureaucrats and secretaries. Government increasingly of men and not laws.

Like many Republican lawmakers who voted in favor of ESSA, DeVos has been promoting the law as a vehicle to eliminate the federalized Common Core standards and return education policy back to the states and local governments.

However, under ESSA – as it was passed by Congress – states are required to seek approval from the federal government for their accountability systems and plans for how they will show they are meeting criteria for accepting the federal government’s taxpayer funds. These plans must include an expansive array of activities, such as how states will assess the success of teachers, students, schools, and school districts, and what they propose to do if they are not successful in achieving their goals.

ESSA tasks the education department with reviews of these state plans as well as the power to approve or deny them.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate’s education committee, proudly boasted ESSA was passed in “bipartisan” fashion, and that former President Barack Obama signed Alexander’s bill almost immediately into law.

“We have reversed the trend toward a national school board, repealed the federal Common Core mandate, and enacted what the Wall Street Journal called ‘the largest devolution of federal control to states in a quarter century,” Alexander announced upon the passage of the bill.

In April, citing ESSA, DeVos said, “There really isn’t any Common Core anymore,” adding the federal law “does away with the whole argument about Common Core.”

According to Education Week, however, “at least 37 states” were still using the Common Core standards or its rebrands as of the end of last year.

Senior fellow at American Principles Project Emmett McGroarty at The National Pulse, following the approval of ESSA, wrote:

Anti-Common Core activists tried for months to warn Congress that the new federal education bill … was a disaster that would cement, not overturn, the odious progressive-education philosophies of the Obama Administration. Now comes confirmation that the activists were dead on — and that Republican leadership, including Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. John Kline, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, carried out a cynical scheme to betray their constituents and give the Administration everything it wanted.

Parent activists and education scholars who studied ESSA prior to its passage sounded the alarm that the federal law neither repeals the Common Core mandate nor prohibits the education secretary from coercing states into adopting the standards.

“Within the other 1,060 pages of ESSA lurk the provisions that will keep states in Common Core, or something that looks very much like Common Core,” American Principles Project senior fellow Jane Robbins and Indiana parent activist Erin Tuttle also wrote at The National Pulse. “The Secretary won’t have to mandate anything, because the other parts of the bill contain the requirements for … ‘high standards,’” a phrase that has come to refer to Common Core.

Robbins and Tuttle quote the ESSA law and translate the Common Core rhetoric:

“Each State shall demonstrate that the challenging academic standards are aligned with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the system of public higher education in the State and relevant State career and technical education standards.” This is simply another way of saying states must have “college- and career-ready” standards. And as made clear by the U.S. Department of Education’s own materials, “college- and career-ready” means Common Core.

To help states with their ESSA plans, DeVos’s department released in March a “revised consolidated State plan template” and a guide that refers states to two private organizations, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association – both of which are the sole owners of the Common Core State Standards – for assistance “to support the plan submission process.”

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this year to roll back Obama-era education department regulations, DeVos said about ESSA, “We’re going to implement this law as Congress intended, not how the previous administration dictated. When we give decision-making power back to states and communities, students benefit.”

The key phrase, however, is “as Congress intended.”

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Establishment Republicans have attempted a narrative that, with ESSA, they have turned education policy back to the states and negotiated a darn good “bipartisan” deal with their Democrat colleagues. The problem is that, as with Obamacare, continued federal overreach into education is exactly what “Congress intended.”

These same Republican lawmakers are now hearing a multitude of complaints and are distancing themselves from DeVos’s department.

“I think we have a case of an assistant secretary [Jason Botel] who hasn’t read the law carefully,” Alexander told Education Week regarding the complaints. “The heart of the entire law … was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.”

The report continues:

So why is Alexander speaking out now? He opened the New York Times recently and saw that Botel had been quoted saying that, because ESSA doesn’t explain exactly what “ambitious” means with respect to state student achievement goals, it’s up to the secretary to define it for states.

That doesn’t jibe with Alexander’s understanding of the law. “Not only did we not authorize the Department of Education to define the word ambition, we specifically prohibited it,” Alexander said. “That’s what the law says, in plain terms.”

And the education chairman is also unhappy that DeVos has told some states that they may not be able to use Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors courses to measure college-and-career readiness.

Botel served as executive director of the Maryland education advocacy group MarylandCAN – which was financed by Bill Gates – and has a history of support for Common Core.

DeVos will be testifying to the House Education and the Workforce Committee about the state ESSA plans, among other issues.

Following a hearing in which she heard the testimony of state education officials on the ESSA plans, current committee chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who also supported ESSA, said, according to U.S. News & World Report:

Part of [the education law’s] goals for state and school district autonomy was to force Washington to remain at arm’s length from states and school districts when it comes to education, and rest assured that this committee will be watching to ensure Washington keeps its distance.

“I think that a lot of what it boils down to is a subject we deal with a lot in this committee … and that is the role of the federal government in education,” she added.

Joy Pullmann, author of The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids, tells Breitbart News the core problem “is the fact that we have a federal Education Department at all, which Congress has charged with executing a swamp full of counterproductive and fanciful mandates that nobody, not angels themselves, could improve student achievement by carrying out.”

The managing editor at The Federalist explains:

The simple truth is that Congress is ill-suited to tell the nation’s 35 million schoolkids and 3.2 million teachers what they should all be doing. Nobody except God knows that, and Congress isn’t God. It needs to get a big dose of humility and strip federal law of ineffective trillion-dollar unicorn-land education programs, and send it all back to the states. Congress can’t pass hopes into law and expect bureaucrats to fill in the blanks without becoming a major pain in the petunias.

Pullmann recommends the Trump education department simply stop enforcing “Congress’s vague mandates.”

“It should also compile a list of the unenforceable and counterproductive programs it has overseen now for nearly sixty years to no measurable benefit to Americans, and send the whole lot to Congress for repeal,” she adds. “They can start with the work of the Independence Institute’s Vicki Alger, whose latest book will give them a rock-solid roadmap for precisely that endeavor.”

Robbins also observes to Breitbart News that, thus far, there is not much difference between the Obama and Trump education departments:

There have been a few hopeful signs of policy changes under DeVos, but even those have been tentative. Overall, the new sheriff looks a lot like the old sheriff. It’s baffling to the conservative grassroots that DeVos and many of her appointees seem to be completely disregarding what President Trump repeated again and again during the campaign — no to Common Core, yes to restoring local control over education.

“It’s beginning to look a little insulting,” she adds.


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