Congressional Republicans have started the process to permanently block two Obama administration education regulations.
The proposals would undo accountability regulations finalized last fall governing how school performance is judged under the Every Student Succeeds Act — rules already put on hold by President Trump — and how teacher training programs are rated for their effectiveness.
GOP lawmakers would use the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to stop implementation of rules proposed by executive agencies, to shed the K-12 accountability objectives of Obama and former education secretary John King.
The review act offers an expedited legislative path. While used only once successfully since its origin in the mid-’90s, it sets a timeline for consideration in what can be a slow-moving Senate and requires only a simple majority, rather than the usual 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster. And once blocked by the Congressional Review Act, executive branch agencies are prevented from issuing any similar regulation until expressed allowed by another law.
The Every Student Succeeds Act was approved with broad bipartisan support in December 2015 and was the first reauthorization of the law governing K-12 education since No Child Left Behind was adopted in 2001.
The Obama administration “worked in a very partisan manner” to implement the reforms in ESSA, Rep. Todd Rokita, sponsor of the resolution to overturn them, said in a statement.
“We are committed to holding both the former and current administrations accountable to students, parents and local leaders, and this resolution is one way we can do just that,” he said.
The Trump administration already paused the ESSA rule through a broad edict halting the implementation of nearly all pending Obama-era regulations. The most controversial ESSA regulation under Obama, the so-called supplement-not-supplant rule, involved how states and high-poverty school districts would have to account for their spending, showing they were using federal money to bolster services to needy students, not to replace local dollars. The Obama administration withdrew that rule, which was unpopular and had never been finalized, just before the former president left office.
The accountability regulations had been finalized and had the backing of a wider coalition of education advocacy groups.
(The 74: As Trump Pauses on ESSA Accountability, Advocates Look for Signal on Whether New Rules Will Stick)
Blocking the Education Department from crafting any sort of accountability regulations could wreak havoc on implementation, Democrats and advocates said.
“States and districts need clarity and consistency provided by regulation to move forward with faithful implementation that meets the needs of all students,” Rep. Bobby Scott, ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a written statement.
The Education Department Wednesday “removed all ESSA technical assistance for states from being publicly available, and approval of the resolution will only leave states and districts further confused about how to comply with the law’s safeguards,” he added.
Anne Hyslop, a senior associate at Chiefs for Change, a group of reform-minded state education and school district leaders, and a former staffer in the Obama Education Department, tweeted that blocking the regulations that set out how states should submit their ESSA accountability plans to the U.S. secretary of education would lead to “chaos and delay.”
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said state leaders, who have already started meeting with stakeholders and writing their implementation plans, are less concerned with the politics of overturning the regulations than the basic question of what they should do next.
“This is a train that is headed down the tracks. The most important piece is that there’s clarity for next steps,” everything from timelines to the actual application process, he said.
The regulation set deadlines of April 3 or September 8 for states to submit plans for Education Department approval, with implementation to start in the 2018–19 school year. If Congress passes the disapproval resolution, that timeline would disappear, too.
It’s vital that states get clarity from the Education Department once Congress acts, Minnich said: “Whatever the politics around the regulations are, states have to actually do a job, and they have to respond to this law.”
Minnich met with Education Secretary–nominee Betsy DeVos Tuesday and said that she was a “good listener” who was receptive to concerns that states should be leading ESSA implementation but needed support from the federal Education Department.
Another group, the National Governors Association, praised the Republicans’ move to overturn the regulations, arguing in a statement that it would put ESSA implementation back in state leaders’ hands “uninhibited by regulatory barriers on accountability.”
“For minimal disruption and a continued smooth transition to ESSA, governors will work with the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that clarity on accountability is swiftly provided to states through guidance and technical assistance. Governors will also forge a strong relationship with the new education secretary to guarantee that K-12 civil rights safeguards continue to be upheld,” the group said.
Trump’s surprise election had already shuffled the ESSA implementation calculus months ago. Education reform advocates have since said that the law set a baseline accountability standard but did not prevent state and local leaders who want to take a tougher stance on improving schools for low-income children, students of color, English-language learners and others who historically haven’t been served well from doing so.
The teacher preparation regulations, unlike the accountability regulations, were more broadly vilified.
The Obama administration proposed to rate teacher training programs based, in part, on how well students taught by the program’s graduates performed on tests. Programs that didn’t perform well could lose eligibility for federal TEACH grants, which support would-be teachers who commit to specializing in high-need subjects or working in low-income neighborhoods.
Teachers unions hated the idea of using test scores, comparing the emphasis to the since-abandoned No Child Left Behind. Republicans said it violated the Higher Education Act, which mandates that states, not the federal government, evaluate teacher prep programs.
Since ESSA’s passage, an overdue rewrite of the Higher Education Act has been the next major education item on Congress’s to-do list.
The Obama administration’s proposal “ignore[s] the principles guiding recent bipartisan education reforms and would actually make it more difficult for state and local leaders to help ensure teachers are ready to succeed,” sponsor Rep. Brett Guthrie said in a statement.
Lingering ESSA rules are not the only ones Congress has on its mind. The House by the end of this week will have considered five resolutions blocking various Obama administration regulations. The Senate passed one of them Thursday afternoon, preventing a rule that banned dumping coal mining waste in waterways.