Weingarten: Don't use ESSA to 'level down' schools

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AFT President Randi Weingarten told a key U.S. Senate panel on May 18 that the essential flexibility and shared decision-making that powered enactment of the nation's major new law for elementary and secondary education could be jeopardized by the Education Department's overreach and potentially illegal regulatory spin—before the law gets beyond Washington, D.C.

Weingarten testifyingWeingarten addressed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and focused her comments on regulations drafted by the administration for "supplement-not-supplant" rules under the Every Student Succeeds Act. These rules have long been part of the nation's keystone K-12 education law, ensuring that the additional federal funding states receive to level the playing field for disadvantaged students is used appropriately.

Congress made no changes to supplement-not-supplant rules when it enacted ESSA last year. However, the Education Department's draft regulations conflate supplement-not-supplant with another section of the law called "comparability" (a fiscal requirement that focuses on funding between schools).

The Education Department "is trying to achieve in regulations the policy it failed to get in legislation," Weingarten testified. The department's proposed rules could trigger "a dollar-for-dollar comparison between schools," a move that will spark a "leveling down" climate in districts that will not guarantee equity and opportunity. These are values that "are in the AFT's DNA," Weingarten said, and moving toward them will require an even deeper discussion of what children, teachers and schools need.

"Resource equity is essential, but I would go even a step further, which is resource adequacy," she told lawmakers, emphasizing that the union will keep fighting for full funding of Title I through the appropriations process so that the emphasis is on "leveling up" and schools with the least "can be made whole."

That is not the direction that the Education Department is taking in its first ESSA regulatory actions, Weingarten said. Its actions suggest that "it was neither listening to stakeholders nor following the framework of the legislation," Weingarten said. "By conflating supplement-not-supplant and comparability policies, the department is pursuing a policy agenda that was rejected in the legislative process."

It's indicative of a heavy handed "same old, same old" approach from Washington that was a constant source of anger and frustration about ESSA's predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, she said, and it bodes ill for how the Education Department views its role in future regulations on such major implementation issues.

If the Education Department takes "the level of prescription it has proposed for supplement-not-supplant to the upcoming regulations on school accountability systems, [it] could strip the law of the flexibility necessary to create accountability systems that envision new ways to define and measure learning." And if the draft regulations on supplement-not-supplant stand, the dollar-for-dollar comparisons the Education Department is pressuring school systems to make could lead to a leveling-down climate in districts, which will work against the best interests of students and a host of unintended consequences.

Currently, principals' staffing decisions are based on positions, rather than on a dollar amount they have to spend. "We don't want a teacher's salary to keep him or her from getting hired" or to drive decisions on which teachers get retained or transferred. Dollar-for-dollar decisions "can be thrown off by something as simple as how many teachers in each school have individual health insurance coverage rather than family coverage," Weingarten warned.

The AFT president's views were shared widely at the hearing. Committee chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) pointed to a new report from the bipartisan Congressional Research Service warning that "a legal argument could be raised that ED exceeded its statutory authority" if it pursues this change.

Ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was among many in the room who repeatedly emphasized that ESSA is "at its heart a civil rights law" that demands thoughtful and appropriate use, and Murray said both states and the Education Department must listen closely to stakeholders on public education's front lines and "continue to work with these groups as the process moves forward."

[AFT staff reports/Jay Mallin photo]