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State and Local Ed Leaders: Department’s Actions Threaten Positive K-12 Reforms

The Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), today held a hearing to examine the Department of Education’s steps to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The committee heard from Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., as well as state and local leaders who echoed members’ concerns regarding the department’s accountability and “supplement, not supplant” proposals.
“We are raising these concerns because it’s vitally important for the laws written by Congress to be faithfully executed,” Chairman Kline said. “And just as importantly, we are raising these concerns because we want to ensure every child has the best chance to receive a quality education. We cannot go back to the days when the federal government dictated national education policy—it didn’t work then and won’t work now.”
Witnesses commended Congress for ending the Washington-knows-best-approach of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and returning control of K-12 education back to the states and local school districts. However, they emphasized that for ESSA’s reforms to be successful, the department must implement those reforms in a manner that respects the letter and intent of the law.
“[ESSA] was seen as an opportunity for educators closest to the students they teach at the state and local level to be included in the conversations on determining what our schools and students need to succeed,” said Cassie Harrelson, a secondary math teacher for Aurora Public Schools in Colorado. “I am excited about the flexibility and the promise of ESSA, I know the work will be complicated and take time at all levels … However, as a teacher, I worry that the extensive areas dictated under the proposed federal regulations take away my voice.”
Harrelson went on to express disappointment in the department’s accountability proposals, as well as the department’s increasing focus on standardized testing.
“As an educator in Aurora, I have been excited for the accountability system to not only focus on student outcomes, but also on closing the critical opportunity gaps that exist in so many of our schools,” she said. “Yet, once again in the proposed regulations we see a return to increasing the focus on standardized tests.”
Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen L. Pruitt echoed similar concerns regarding the complexity of the proposed rules, “The autonomy promised by ESSA was a welcome departure from the prescriptive nature of NCLB. But … when one examines the proposed regulations, they contain so many restrictions and requirements that state choices remain severely limited.”
Pruitt continued, “The volume and complexity of these regulations are in direct opposition to Kentuckians’ desire for a system that is simple and yield clear, concise messages to the public and parents and provides a broad view of school performance.”
Superintendent David Schuler, from Arlington Heights, Ill., warned that such prescriptive regulations “run the risk of hindering state and local innovation before it has time to be implemented.”
“State and local education agencies are emerging from 15 years of compliance-based mentality as it related to education policy,” he said. “ESSA represents the first time these education agencies have the opportunity to innovate and demonstrate what we are capable of.”
With the successful implementation of ESSA, superintendents like Schuler will be able to better ensure the students he oversees receive a quality education. “Under ESSA, you have given us permission to dream and lead and transform public education in this country—and we will do just that,” he said.

Chairman Kline agreed. “Every child in every school deserves an excellent education, and the only way to achieve that goal is to restore state and local control,” he concluded. “That’s what the Every Student Succeeds Act is intended to do, and we will use every tool at our disposal to ensure the letter and intent of the law are followed.”

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