DeVos breaks ranks with GOP, wants changes in ESSA plan

DeVos breaks ranks with GOP, wants changes in ESSA plan

(District of Columbia) In a muddled if not contrarian response to a state plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education has suggested, among other things, that student performance can only be measured by math and reading scores.

The surprise pronouncement, included as part of the department’s review of Delaware’s plan for meeting ESSA requirements, stands in stark contrast to what architects of the law said were two key goals—giving states the freedom and the responsibility for designing their own accountability systems; and removing the federal government as arbiter over school performance.

If upheld, the directive will send shockwaves across the nation as many other states have constructed similar accountability systems that include multiple academic measures for evaluating how well schools are teaching students. Some insiders, however, are watching the developments carefully to see if Delaware officials push back against the department.

“It is very much within the authority of Delaware to come back and say, ‘No, that’s not how we interpret this,’” said David DeSchryver, senior vice president and co-director of Whiteboard Advisors, a D.C.-based education consulting firm.

“This is a peer review letter (from the Education Department), so it’s not binding legal document and there’s still a lot of room for Delaware to respond, and we’ll see where it goes,” DeSchryver said.

After decades of complaints about the No Child Left Behind Act, especially related to the prescriptive federal oversight of schools, a bipartisan Congress joined with President Barack Obama in adopting ESSA in 2015.

Among the many changes that came with the law was the understanding that the federal government would have a far less active role in overseeing the nation’s schools. Instead of the U.S. Secretary of Education, state officials were now given authority to define student success and how to intervene when schools fell short.

Under ESSA, states are required to submit plans to the department explaining how they intend on implementing the new law, and Congress specifically restricted the Education Secretary’s ability to influence or direct those plans.

The deadline for submitting the plans is September 18, although several states, including Delaware, sent their documents in early. Arizona’s plan has already been approved. The department has also sent back requests for revisions on plans submitted by Nevada and New Mexico.

But it is the Delaware plan that has attracted attention, raising new questions about Besty DeVoss, the new Education Secretary, and how much input she had in the review process.

After reading the response to Delaware, one capital insider mused that the tenor of the message appeared more aligned with Congressional Democrats than with DeVoss’ GOP colleagues.

“It is a very narrow read of the law,” DeSchryver agreed. “This was surprising, especially when you consider all the discussion about ESSA regulation and guidance and giving states and local officials discretion when it comes to education policy. This seems to run contrary to that.”

School and state officials could also be caught off-guard given that in February, DeVos circulated a letter nationally saying that it was her intent to implement and enforce ESSA as it was written—something Congressional leaders had said that the outgoing Obama administration was not doing.

She noted that the freeze on new regulations by the Trump administration and the move to repeal Obama’s directives on ESSA—both taken shortly after Donald Trump took office—would not disrupt the process states had been following for creating their ESSA plans and submitting them for federal review.

“The regulatory delay and review, and the potential repeal of recent regulations by Congress, should not adversely affect or delay the progress that States have already made in developing their State plans and transitioning to the ESSA,” she said.

But in the Delaware letter, the department appears to be departing from this policy—at least in the general interpretation of the law.

Along with calling out Delaware’s plan to add science and social studies to their academic indicator, the department also objected to the state proposing to give schools options for how to measure college and career readiness.

Specifically, Delaware wants to include student performance on Advanced Placement coursework and International Baccalaureate exams as a measurement of college readiness. But the department said that couldn’t be done unless all high schools in the state offered the programs.

The department emphasized that performance indicators need to be consistent to allow comparison. 

DeSchryver pointed out that, in most cases, including a higher standard as part of what schools would be judged on can also act as an incentive for schools to upgrade their curriculum.

“If a school isn’t using its money to invest in accelerated learning, under Delaware’s proposed system, the state would be encouraging them to do so,” he said. “I think that’s the point.”