DeVos Education Department ‘Strongarms’ Utah Parents

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AP Photo/Ty Wright

A grassroots parent organizer in Utah says her state is a good example of how Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education is still forcing states to comply with federal mandates that go against the wishes of parents and elected officials.

Autumn Foster Cook recalls at the Federalist what Republicans and Democrats alike told Americans after passing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015.

The measure – signed into law immediately by former President Barack Obama, who referred to it as a “Christmas miracle,” was hailed for “supposedly ‘putting more control for our schools in state and local hands’ and ‘reducing reliance on high-stakes testing,’” writes Cook.

“But as the law has been rolled out under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, ideals have succumbed to reality,” she continues. “The law still forces states to play their maddening game of ‘Mother, May I?’ with the U.S. Department of Education (USED).”

Cook describes Utah as the “latest loser” of the game in which DeVos and Republican leaders like Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN) continue to tout that ESSA has gotten rid of Common Core – the most recent federally-incentivized national progressive reform in education – and greatly diminished the federal footprint in education.

However, as Shane Vander Hart wrote at Truth in American Education, ESSA essentially cemented Common Core – and its standardized tests – into every state in the country.

“Sure, the U.S. Department of Education is not actively pushing Common Core, they don’t need to,” Vander Hart explained. “The standards and assessment consortiums don’t need to be funded anymore. The damage is done. They don’t need to publicly push it because ESSA essentially codified Common Core.”

ESSA, in fact, still requires states to submit their education plans for approval – and, thus, federal funding – to the federal education department. In Utah’s case, DeVos told the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) she would not approve the state’s plan and, therefore, give Utah its largest portion of federal funding (Title I), if less than 95 percent of its students participate in federally mandated tests.

“Due to big increases in parents refusing to let their kids take standardized tests after Common Core went into place, Utah’s test rate last year was 94.1 percent,” explains Cook.

As Jane Robbins, senior fellow at American Principles Project, observed, one reason for Utah’s rising opt-out numbers has been parents’ discontent with the state’s Common Core-aligned Student Assessment for Growth and Excellence (SAGE) test. Developed by the American Institutes for Research – a behavioral research organization – the test had not been shown to be academically valid.

“The clash here, then, was between parents’ inherent right to govern their children’s education and indeed protect them from harm, as explicitly protected by state law, and federal mandates,” Robbins wrote. “Guess which won?”

Cook continues:

After Utah’s board tried twice to protect parental rights and follow state law, which protects parents’ right to opt their kids out of state tests, Utah’s education board finally succumbed, and agreed to follow USED’s directive to count some students who opt out of state testing as “non-proficient,” a move that attacks parental rights and penalizes schools with an opt out rate higher than 5 percent.

What this means is that, although state law allows parents to opt their children out of standardized tests, some Utah students whose parents make that choice will be given a zero, which will cause aggregate scores to drop – thereby punishing their public schools and teachers.

Cook points out the DeVos education department forged ahead with this demand even though “section 1111 of ESSA states, ‘Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed as preempting a State or local law regarding the decision of a parent to not have the parent’s child participate in the academic assessments under this paragraph.’”

In the end, Utah’s education plan was approved after USED Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel and state superintendent Sydnee Dickson negotiated what Cook says is a “complete cave.”

“Schools where more than 5 percent of students refuse to take federally mandated tests, the agreement says, face federal penalties,” she writes. “What we have here is unelected federal officials—DeVos and deputies such as Botel—attempting an end-run around elected state officials. This is basically what all federal education involvement enables.”

Cook asserts:

Contrary to lawmakers’ promises, ESSA did not free states to pursue independent educational goals, nor reduce reliance on testing. DeVos’s administration seems inclined to enforce the constraints as rigidly as possible, with little deference to state law and parental rights, despite precisely opposite rhetoric from DeVos, the Trump administration, and Republican congressional leadership that rushed ESSA into passage shortly before Barack Obama left office.

In fact, Nicholas Tampio, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, explained in March, “The federal government has made it an expensive gamble for states to adopt education standards that differ from the Common Core.”

Noting that “DeVos has approved virtually all [state] plans that include the Common Core or a slightly modified version,” Tampio continued that ESSA requires states to adopt standards that align with “relevant State career and technical education standards.”

“[N]early every state that adopted the Common Core during the Obama administration has kept the most important features,” Tampio observed, adding the claim of DeVos and politicians that ESSA “has repealed the Common Core mandate is misleading.”

Some 42 states are still using the Common Core standards or its “rebrands.”

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