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FULL SPEED AHEAD ON ESSA IMPLEMENTATION: Congress, U.S. Department of Education Hold Hearings on New Law as Acting Education Secretary John King Prepares for Busy Week on Capitol Hill

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"House Democrats want the U.S. Department of Education to hold states accountable for equity. House Republicans want to hold ED accountable for state flexibility," said Lovell.

Although the Every Student Success Act (ESSA) was signed into law in December, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act, most of its provisions will not take effect until the 2017–18 school year. Still, that leaves little time for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to issue regulations on how states and districts should implement ESSA in instances where the law as written leaves things open to interpretation.

If Republican congressional leaders have their way, ED will issue as little regulation as possible and instead largely defer to states and school districts. Democrats appreciate the greater flexibility ESSA affords states and school districts while wanting the federal government to continue to enforce the law’s various safeguards for students of color, students from low-income families, and other traditionally underserved students.

All of these viewpoints were out in the open on February 10 when the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held the first congressional hearing on implementation of ESSA. In a blog post for the Alliance for Excellent Education’s “High School Soup” blog, Alliance Vice President of Policy and Advocacy Phillip Lovell called the hearing a “stark reminder of the deep philosophical divide” between Republicans and Democrats on the federal role in education.

“Although both parties [supported] ESSA,” Lovell writes, “they are worlds apart on how to implement it. House Democrats want the U.S. Department of Education to hold states accountable for equity. House Republicans want to hold ED accountable for state flexibility.”

Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita (R-IL) underscored that point in his opening statement, saying, “The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act puts states and school districts back in charge of education, and includes more than 50 pages of provisions to keep the Department of Education in check. … Moving forward, it’s our collective responsibility to hold the Department of Education accountable for how it implements the law. Congress promised to restore state and local control over K–12 education, and now it’s our job to ensure that promise is kept.”

In her opening statement, U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) highlighted the flexibility that the law grants to states in developing accountability systems, standards, and assessments, but she stressed that the law maintained federal protections for traditionally underserved students. She also underscored that the new flexibility states enjoy also comes with increased responsibility and said that states and school districts will need to “implement ESSA in a way that continues its focus on meeting the needs of our nation’s most at-risk students.”

Lovell notes that it is too early to tell how state accountability systems will balance equity and flexibility under ESSA, but he writes that education reform advocates need to “support state leaders who recognize the need for accountability systems to focus on equity,” while ED “needs to issue regulations that require states to maintain that focus.”

Already this year, ED has moved quickly on the regulations process. In January, it held two public meetings on ESSA—one in Washington, DC and one in Los Angeles. On February 2, ED issued guidance to states on how federal dollars may be used to reduce unnecessary assessments and improve the quality of assessments. And on February 4, ED announced that it will undergo “negotiated rulemaking,” a process by which ED appoints people to serve on a committee to help develop regulations. Negotiated rulemaking makes it more likely that the regulation will be accepted by all interested parties, but it makes consensus more difficult to achieve. Negotiators will meet up to three times by the end of April, and if consensus is reached, ED will issue the agreed-upon regulations regarding assessments and the Title I “supplement, not supplant” policy for public comment.

Nominated by President Obama to Serve as U.S. Secretary of Education, John King Facing Busy Week on Capitol Hill

One person who will play a key role throughout the ESSA implementation process is Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King. After originally saying that he would not nominate King to serve as secretary, President Obama reversed course on February 11 and said he would nominate King. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee will consider King’s nomination during an executive session on February 25.

The day before, on February 24, King will testify at a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on “Examining the Policies and Priorities of the U.S. Department of Education.” The following day, February 25, King will again appear before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, this time for a hearing titled, “Next Steps for K–12 Education: Upholding the Letter and Intent of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise is one of many who believes that King can handle the political heat.

“At his heart, Dr. King is a passionate advocate for kids,” Wise said in a statement supporting King’s nomination. “He knows what it is like to need an advocate, having lost both of his parents at age twelve. He also knows how important an individual teacher can be, having been personally uplifted by the too-often-overlooked educators who dedicate their lives to teaching the nation’s students.

“His dedicated heart comes to this new position encased in a body bearing numerous battle scars. Dr. King’s previous experience as commissioner of education for the state of New York will serve him well in the legislative wrestling ring that has been made of the nation’s capital. He knows the fault lines in the fast-moving education policy environment.”

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