Alabama ‘Test Case’ of Trump Administration’s Commitment to Local Control of Education

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Evan Vucci/AP

The Trump Department of Education’s rejection of a request by Alabama to drop the ACT Aspire test for its students in favor of different tests is spurring sentiment that the state may well be a “test case” to see how committed President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are to “local control” of education.

While on the campaign trail and since his inauguration, Trump has repeated his promise to end Common Core and work to get the federal government out of education. More recently, DeVos has called for states and local school districts to have greater say over education issues, citing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as the means to bring about local control.

However, ESSA requires states to submit their education plans to the federal government for approval, and Alabama state superintendent Michael Sentance learned his request to administer different tests to his state’s students was rejected. The superintendent is now asking the federal government for a waiver – and proponents of local control of education are eagerly awaiting the response of DeVos’s department.

After years of Alabama students scoring poorly on the ACT Aspire test, Sentance, the former secretary of education in Massachusetts, and members of the Alabama Board of Education have rejected it as their standardized test.

In an interview with Breitbart News, Alabama board member Betty Peters (R) says, “The Trump administration would be missing a huge opportunity that would have a positive influence on all of America,” if Alabama were not granted the waiver.

“It would allow us to get started in the right direction,” Peters asserts, adding that when Sentance interviewed for his current post he told board members the state needed a new assessment and new standards.

Alabama still uses the Common Core standards, which are renamed as the Alabama College- and Career-Ready Standards.

“Our students were making good progress until we fully implemented the Common Core State Standards Initiative,” she adds.

The significance of Alabama now requesting a waiver to change its own state test is staggering to those who have been waging battles against the Common Core standards and federal control of education for nearly a decade now. States that are able to decide on their own tests could then create their own standards and finally be rid of Common Core and their rebrands.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, tells Breitbart News:

Five months into the new administration, big questions remain about Secretary DeVos’ vision and whether she will be able to implement it.  She has spoken eloquently about her commitment to federalism and state-driven reforms. Granting waiver requests will likely be the most important tool the Secretary has to unravel the accumulation of federal power over our schools.

As reports, Sentance and members of the state board have continually questioned whether the ACT Aspire is the appropriate test for Alabama’s students.

“Because the Aspire is so racially biased,” board member Ella Bell (D) tells Breitbart News, “It adversely affects scores for children of color and for white children. This test is not aligned with what children are taught across the state. What children are taught is not what they’re tested on, in many instances, and not to mention the readability factor.”

Sentance and his staff members had a phone conference with Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Jason Botel and others from the U.S. Education Department, to ask for permission to stop using the ACT Aspire. In its place, Sentance would like to administer a series of interim tests during the next academic year until the state decides on a new annual test to meet the federal requirement for accountability. The state needs a waiver from the federal government in order to prevent having to renew its contract with ACT Aspire for another year by July 1.

According to the news report, Sentance told state board members the phone conference was “pretty unsatisfactory,” adding, “It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be no.”

State board members, however, were unaccepting of the negative response from the federal government.

Bell says she has contacted members of Alabama’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D) and U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby (R) and Luther Strange (R) for assistance with the waiver request. She tells Breitbart News she has yet to receive a substantive response.

Senior fellow at American Principles Project Emmett McGroarty tells Breitbart News:

The fact that Alabama can’t freely choose its assessments confirms that ESSA failed to return control over K-12 education back to state and local government.  No person, no administration has come up with a way for the federal government to exercise such power without it being an unaccountable political bully. It is time to stop this farce and to truly return education policymaking to state and local government, where it would be closest to parents and other citizens.

Jane Robbins – also a senior fellow at American Principles Project – points to the swift “bipartisan” passage of ESSA and immediate enactment by former President Barack Obama in December of 2015. She tells Breitbart News:

The “bipartisan” proponents of ESSA have repeatedly trumpeted how the statute turns control over education back to the states. Here’s USED’s chance to prove those weren’t just empty talking points. Since President Trump has declared his support for local control and Secretary DeVos has promised to make that happen, we trust she’ll take a great first step by giving Alabama the testing flexibility that it should already have under the Constitution.

“I am confident that, once President Trump and Secretary DeVos realize the situation Alabama is in, they will bend over backwards to help our children,” Peters says. “How can ESSA give us local control, state control if we can’t make any kind of decisions without their acquiescence?”

“Alabama’s request is a real test case,” Stergios says, adding:

It’s one of the first waiver requests, and the waiver is meant to unwind Common Core in Alabama. Given that it comes from Mike Sentance, who is a proven reformer and who cut his teeth leading some of Massachusetts’ most important education advances, it makes no sense for the administration to reject the flexibility Alabama seeks.

The U.S. Department of Education did not return Breitbart News’ request for comment on the issue of a waiver for Alabama.


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