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Witnesses: Department's Actions Will Harm Students, Schools, and Local Flexibility

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 21, 2016
The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), today held a hearing to examine a recent regulatory proposal from the Department of Education changing the longstanding requirement that federal funds supplement—not supplant—state and local funds. Members heard from state and local education leaders and other experts who discussed the negative effects the proposal would have on students and schools across the country.

“When the committee last met to discuss the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we heard concerns from state and local education leaders that the administration is not implementing the law in a way that respects its letter and intent,” Chairman Rokita said. “Since that time, the Department of Education has released a regulatory proposal so unprecedented—and so unlawful—that it demands its own examination.”

Witnesses raised several concerns with the department’s “supplement, not supplant” (SNS) proposal, including its departure from ESSA reforms that restore state and local control of K-12 education.

As Dr. Steve Canavero, superintendent of public instruction for Nevada, explained, the proposal conflicts with “a key principle of ESSA, which is to empower states and districts to set the best path for student achievement based on their needs.”

Ryan Owens, executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, agreed saying, “Educators work every day to open a world of possibilities and opportunities for their students. ESSA recognized that those closest to students and schools have the best hope of improving learning conditions. The regulations proposed by the Department of Education take away the very flexibility ESSA guarantees.”

“Prescriptive regulations like these are not the solution,” Owens said. “These regulations create new administrative burdens, encourage compliance driven decision-making, and rob communities of their ability to govern their schools.”

Dr. Nora E. Gordon, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, expressed similar concerns saying, “The Department of Education’s proposed rule takes an entirely different approach to SNS than ESSA’s language … The approach that [the department] takes has important negative policy and practical implications for Title I and other low-income schools, as well as for public schools in general.”

Gordon went on to outline how the proposal could reduce financial support for public schools; destabilize school staffing; and cut entire programs like music, art, or physical education. Gordon also discussed how low-income schools not participating in Title I could lose state and local funds as a result of the regulatory proposal.

“Some districts choose to concentrate Title I funds in only their very highest poverty schools in order to give those schools more money,” she said. “This means that all other poor schools in that district that are Title I eligible—schools in the 35 percent to 89 percent poverty range—are not Title I schools … The proposed rule could result in these kinds of high-poverty, Title I eligible schools losing state and local funds, in order to make the numbers balance to meet the proposed rule.”

Owens added that the proposal will leave parents and students with less choices, stating, “The proposed rule would likely lead to the elimination of programs and initiatives that increase student and/or parent choice … [becoming] unworkable in a state like Oklahoma where we offer students and parents choices such as online coursework, concurrent enrollment, language immersion programs, advanced placement electives, [and] career and technology programs.”

Given these concerns, witnesses called on the department to instead put forward proposals that align with the key principles of the bipartisan law. Chairman Rokita agreed, reaffirming Congress’s commitment to ensuring the law is implemented as Congress intended—providing states and local districts with the flexibility they need to ensure every student has access to a quality education.

“For too long, our schools were forced to contend with a failed, top-down approach to education. That all changed with [ESSA], but it seems the department hasn’t learned its lesson and is intent on undermining those important, bipartisan reforms,” he said. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

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