DeVos roils ESSA waters

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One of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' first acts also has the potential to be one of her most destructive. Less than a week after she took office, DeVos informed state education chiefs that the White House was ready and willing to go along with a House of Representatives maneuver to toss out important regulations on the Every Student Succeeds Act. While the ESSA regulations are not perfect—and at the time they were released, the AFT and many of its affiliates raised concerns—they provide states important guardrails for equity and are based on a balance of priorities and interests expressed by Americans across the spectrum.

ESSA’s current rules are in jeopardy because the House this month resurrected a long-dormant law called the Congressional Review Act, which essentially empowers Congress to trash regulations adopted in the last months of a president's term, and turned it against a variety of Obama administration rules, including ESSA rules governing school accountability. Congress could vacate the rules if a majority in the Senate follows suit, and DeVos has signaled that this maneuver—which The Hill labeled "fly-by-night legislating"—would be just fine with her.

In a letter to the Council of Chief State School Officers, DeVos said that the Education Department, which would maintain the existing April and September 2017 due dates for state ESSA plans, would add new options for submitting those ESSA templates. States could go with the current template created under Obama, one that is based on the current regulations. Or they could go with a yet-to-be-created template from the new Education Department, stripped of anything the current regulations clarified or added. The last option, DeVos told the state chiefs, is that states could develop their own template under the CCSSO umbrella.

Behind the facade of what sounds like increased flexibility is something much more dire: an Education Department-sanctioned end-run when it comes to fundamental principles like stakeholder engagement and equity.

"A big question when the current administration took office was how much ESSA progress in states and districts would be disrupted," AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote in a letter to AFT leaders. "Less than a week after Betsy DeVos took office as secretary of education, we got our answer.

"As this plays out, please keep up your advocacy for stakeholder engagement and your active review of the drafts and revised plans your states are releasing."

Now, with ESSA deadlines looming, and with states and their stakeholders deep in the process of developing plans based on a template that flows from hard-won consensus, DeVos is threatening to turn the process into a free-for-all. Her two new "to be determined" pathways for ESSA compliance are divorced from considerations like true stakeholder engagement. And her message to state chiefs is simply this: If Congress is ready to spark new uncertainties about ESSA, then I am eager to toss gasoline on that fire.