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July 19, 2017; Education Week and EdSource

Controversy over the role of the federal government in shaping our nation’s public education agenda was thought to have ended when months of rarely seen bipartisan effort in Congress culminated with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. The new law was thought to have rebalanced the playing field, curtailed the power of the U.S. Department of Education, and returned power to the states. But its passage raised concerns about how the rights of students, particularly minority and low-income children, would be protected if the federal government took a more passive role.

The election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Elizabeth DeVos as Secretary of Education reassured those who wanted a more limited federal role in public education. Six months into the Trump administration, as ESSA is being implemented, however, the issue of state-federal balance remains active, and worries about protecting minority rights remain high.

ESSA requires states to develop plans that set goals and lay out strategies for improving school effectiveness for all students, with an emphasis on those students, schools, and school districts having the hardest time providing quality education. The law requires the Department of Education to review and approve these plans, a process that was expected to be pro forma under Secretary DeVos’s leadership. However, there was much surprise when the department’s response to the first batch of plans was anything but. According to Education Week:

The U.S. Department of Education has expressed skepticism about elements of those plans, from the ambitiousness of long-term academic goals to the use of Advanced Placement exams in state accountability systems. Last month, the Council of Chief State School Officers said the first set of feedback to three states was “too prescriptive in certain areas and goes beyond the intent of the law.”

In later feedback to six other states, the department said states needed to provide more information or be more specific about a range of issues, from English-language learners to which schools are identified as the lowest performing.

State education leaders and federal legislators have seen the DoE’s response as overreaching. They are urging Secretary DeVos to rein in her staff and approve plans as submitted. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who had led the effort to craft and pass ESSA, described the DoE position as flying “in the face of the law’s intention that the states—not the federal government—should be calling the shots when it comes to the details of school accountability.”

As much as some fear an overreaching federal government and want ESSA to be a strong control rod, others fear a return to an earlier time when states could easily shortchange the educational needs of minority communities and those who are more difficult to teach. State efforts to retain the new power ESSA has given them raise concern that doing so will mask discriminatory practices. Even in California, a very liberal state, advocacy groups are pushing the state to go further in goal-setting to protect the education of those they see at risk.

California has tried to keep its plans very generic to maintain state control.

[Governor Jerry Brown] and the California Department of Education remain wary about promises they make, since the law will likely remain in effect for more than a decade and be subject to differing interpretations by future administrations.

Barbara Murchison, the state education department lead person on the plan, compared the state’s approach to that of a “deposition,” in which the state will meet the law’s requirements by answering what’s asked, but volunteering little more.

State Board President Michael Kirst summed up his view—Why cede control over an evolving state accountability system to the federal government?—in a statement preceding the discussion on Wednesday. “The state plan is essentially a contract with the federal government,” he said. “I understand that some stakeholders would like to see more details in this plan. But it is not a vehicle to create new law or regulations. A lack of specific detail in the plan does not mean that we will not flesh out that detail as we move forward implementing these programs.”

Critics worry that the federal government will no longer act assertively and want the states to commit to address the educational needs of those who are currently falling behind. Samantha Tran, senior director of education programming for the nonprofit Children Now, said in an email, “The state seems to be abdicating an essential civil rights role, and it’s disheartening.”

This mirrors the concerns raised about impact when the new law had begun to be enforced last year. Nancy Zirkin, director of Policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said then, “Without meaningful enforcement, laws are just words on paper. We look forward to seeing the Secretary’s continued commitment to ensuring ESSA works for low-income students, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities and other students who are too often left behind.”

If this is the picture from Sacramento, there would seem to be much to fear from state plans developed in redder states. The response from the Department of Education to the ESSA-required state plans has been evidence for some that the federal government continues to be too intrusive, and for others raises the specter that the DoE won’t use its power to safeguard against discrimination.—Martin Levine