ESSA plans become political footballs in two states

ESSA plans become political footballs in two states

(District of Columbia) While school officials in most states have been anxious about how the U.S. Department of Education will respond to their plans for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act, two GOP governors last week surprised constituents by rejecting the federally-mandated document before it even got to Washington.

Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Larry Hogan of Maryland gave similar reasons for refusing to sign the ESSA plans—the lack of aggressiveness in dealing with low-performing schools.

“Your bureaucratic proposal does little to challenge the status quo for the benefit of Wisconsin’s students,” said Walker in a letter to the state schools chief.

Walker pointed out that ESSA calls for “rigorous intervention,” but the proposed Wisconsin approach would allow poor performing schools to simply implement an improvement plan created under the supervision of the Department of Public Instruction. “I hope you will agree that adding layers of bureaucratic paperwork does little to help low-performing schools,” Walker said.

Hogan, who unsuccessfully vetoed legislation in April that restricts the state’s ability to intervene with low-performing schools, released a letter last week saying the state board of education could not craft an adequate ESSA plan under the restraints of the new law.

“I strongly believe that this misguided legislation dramatically limited the ability of the (state board of education) to include the type of educational reforms anticipated by ESSA,” Hogan said in correspondence to his state board president. “Because your hands are tied, Maryland is missing out on the opportunity ESSA gives us to move beyond outdated processes and procedures and toward evidence-based, innovative strategies that are producing results across the country.”

Given the political stakes surrounding public schools, it can’t be too surprising that the new authority states have to design and implement new education goals would generate conflict. Until now, however, most of the attention with respect to the ESSA plans have been on U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her uneven review of the work products submitted so far.

DeVos initially appeared to want to take an aggressive role in telling states what they could or could not do—a position she quickly abandoned after drawing sharp rebuke from Congressional Republicans who had made sure to diminish the role of the federal government in school policy. DeVos has since applied a more hands-off approach.

In most states, the ESSA plans have been developed with little drama or attention. Typically, the state board of education serves as lead agency and since they are usually all appointed by the governor, there isn’t a lot of latitude for critics.

The politics in Maryland, however, are far more complicated. Both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats, although the governor is Republican.

The school performance bill that overcame the governor’s veto, prevents the state from taking several actions against low-performing schools including converting them into charters, bringing in private managers or giving families vouchers so that their children could attend private schools.

In Wisconsin, the state schools chief took control over writing the ESSA plan with input from a stakeholder group that included educators, lawmakers, civil rights advocates and a representative of Walker’s office.

Evers, the state superintendent, is a Democrat and also running himself for governor in 2018. He told reporters last week that they would submit the plan without the governor’s signature.

“We feel very confident in the plan,” he said. “We feel like it’s the right one.”