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DeVos Praises ‘Laudable’ Variety in ESSA Plans, Says She’s ‘Just Getting Started’ at Ed Dept.

By Carolyn Phenicie | November 30, 2017

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the great ESSA battle of federal accountability versus state flexibility, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has come down firmly on the side of flexibility — and states are responding, she said Thursday.

“We’ve had top-down approaches for more than a couple of decades now, and it’s been proven to not be effective. Enabling and encouraging creativity and innovation at a local level can help bubble up a lot of really effective solutions and outcomes for students,” she said about the transition away from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

DeVos, during a question-and-answer session with Tennessee governor Bill Haslam at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual conference, said there’s been a mix among the ESSA plans she’s reviewed closely.

“There’s a wide variety in approaches to how individual states are proposing to look at things and meet the students’ needs. I think that’s laudable, and I think we should see a wide variety,” DeVos said.

DeVos previously served on Excel in Ed’s board, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the group’s founder, pushed for her to be President Trump’s education secretary.

Not everyone is so happy about that leeway given to states.

Democrats and civil rights groups have raised alarms about what they say are inappropriate approvals of state ESSA plans that don’t comply with the law’s underlying guardrails to protect underserved students.

Sen. Patty Murray used a hearing on higher education earlier this week to say DeVos and the Education Department are “blatantly violating” ESSA and that the secretary should come before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to explain herself.

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DeVos on Thursday declined to call out any one state or policy as particularly innovative.

“There’s lot of unique approaches, but I think it will be up to a lot of the governors and state school officers and, frankly, others who can and should be engaged with the actual implementation of this, to look at what others are doing and challenge themselves more on how they can actually meet their students’ needs at a higher level,” she said.

ESSA plans should be a “ceiling and not a floor” to use the law’s flexibility to spur more local innovation, she added.

DeVos’s prepared remarks focused, as they often do, on the stories of students and families who benefited from school choice programs as she continued her call for urgent education reform.

Millions of children are trapped in schools that are failing them, DeVos said.

“These aren’t just numbers. These are precious young lives, full of promise and potential, kids who don’t have time to wait until next year, or until next session, or until after the next election. They don’t even have time to wait until tomorrow,” she said.

DeVos also touched on the recent media firestorm, fueled by an Alternet story based on one quote in a larger magazine profile, that she would be resigning imminently.

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“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” she said. “I’m not planning to go anywhere, and in fact, we’re just getting started.”

Disclosures: The Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William E. Simon Foundation, Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, and the Triad Foundation provide funding to The 74 and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation previously provided financial support to The 74.

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