DeVos strips stakeholder engagement from ESSA requirements

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rolled out a new template on March 13 to guide states as they prepare to submit their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act to the Department of Education, and one change immediately raised red flags. It involves the way the new administration is handling existing federal requirements that guarantee community stakeholders a real say in ESSA implementation. DeVos simply axed them.

Under the new template, states are not required to explain to the Education Department how they have worked with stakeholders to develop their plans, as they were under an ESSA plan template created by the Obama administration. That is in large part because congressional Republicans repealed rules created by the Obama administration.

The change is as disruptive as it is disturbing for a state like Ohio: On the same day that DeVos put her top-down spin on the law, the Buckeye State extended its ESSA timeline in order to incorporate more stakeholder input in the process.

"We want to do as much as we can to encourage the state superintendent to continue to work with educators and other stakeholders," says Melissa Cropper, an AFT vice president and president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, which spearheaded the successful effort to build in more community voices by extending until September the state's timeline for submitting its ESSA plan.

Ohio will continue on course, crafting its ESSA strategy with broad participation, regardless of the education secretary's change, Cropper says. "The people of Ohio know that shareholder engagement is critical, and Betsy DeVos would be wise to follow our lead."

"One of the problems of education reform over the last two decades was the attempt by billionaires and politicians to impose top-down dictates about what schools should do and how they should do it," AFT President Randi Weingarten said after the new rules were announced. "That was changed by ESSA through its requirement of 'stakeholder engagement,' which brings in parent and teacher voices and reflects America's deep connection to public education. Betsy DeVos' action betrays the very intention of this law."

That view is certainly shared by congressional leaders who shaped the law.

"We are disappointed that Secretary DeVos is casting aside input from teachers, parents and stakeholders and is refusing to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress intended," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said in a joint statement. "Without the strong federal guardrails ESSA puts in place—including requirements for stakeholder consultation and a common state plan—decision making becomes less transparent and puts our most vulnerable children at risk."

States have been working on ESSA plans for months, and many informed the Department of Education that they were planning to file them by April 3, the first deadline set under the Obama administration. Now, with the late introduction of a new template, that deadline has effectively been pushed back to May 3, since ESSA requires that governors have 30 days to review their state plans. For their part, governors were not warm to the last-minute changes under DeVos, particularly efforts to soft-pedal grass-roots input.

"Governors are concerned that the department's revised template fails to prioritize proper stakeholder engagement, even though it is a core requirement within the law," the National Governors Association said in a statement. "NGA has led national efforts to encourage significant input from classroom teachers, parents, superintendents, principals and school boards. We will not waver as a result of this development."

[Mike Rose]