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Jason Botel Reportedly Out at Education Dept. as Feds Reject ESSA Plan From DeVos’s Home State

By Beth Hawkins | August 14, 2017

Photo: 50CAN
In recent days, education Kremlinologists have been glued to the potentially intertwined dramas of the U.S. Department of Education’s rejection of Michigan’s plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the likely departure of Jason Botel, the ED staffer who did the rejecting.

Michigan being the home state of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose controversial laissez-faire stance toward school accountability made her a household name in that state long before her Trump administration introduced her to the rest of the nation.

The basic contours of the drama are these:

In January, DeVos hired Botel, a progressive education reform fixture who left his post as executive director of the advocacy group MarylandCAN, to take the job. DeVos had been clear about her intent to minimize ED oversight, while Botel was known to favor accountability.

The 74 took note of the wavelet of shock that followed the appointment:

“This is an administration that even some mainstream Republicans are not agreeing to serve, so to have a progressive Democrat to serve is certainly newsworthy,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank.

Though a Trump critic, Petrilli has been optimistic about the new administration’s stance on reducing Washington’s role in education policy. But the addition of Botel, he said, complicates that position. “My sense is he is someone, like many left-of-center education reformers, who believes in an activist federal role in education,” Petrilli said.

Botel’s most visible role was to oversee the evaluation of the new state school oversight plans required under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. Upon taking office, DeVos said she would sign off on any plan that adhered to the law, going so far as to tell state education chiefs in a closed-door meeting that she would consider plans that weren’t complete.

In June, ED shocked policy watchers by informing Delaware, New Mexico, and Nevada that their ESSA school accountability and improvement plans needed more detail and rigor. This “wasn’t as rubber-stampy as folks might have thought it would be,” a pleased Dale Chu, who is working with the Collaborative for Student Success and Bellwether Education Partners to review state plans, told The 74.

Less sanguine was Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and one of ESSA’s chief architects. Botel, he groused, hadn’t read the law. Alexander would eventually have had to decide whether to vote to confirm Botel, who was working on an interim appointment as deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

And so all eyes were on Michigan, where the DeVos family has a long history of lobbying against greater school oversight and the strengthening of accountability laws. Reaction to the state’s proposed plan from the outside experts Chu was working with was resoundingly negative.

“Based on what I’ve seen and what’s public, if they approve Michigan, you gotta wonder what kind of signal does that send to rest of the states,” outside reviewer Doug Mesecar told EdWeek. “That move would just let the barn doors open and everything is going to be possible.”

On Aug. 8, EdWeek’s Alyson Klein cited sources who said Botel was out at ED. The next day, the Detroit Free Press reported that Botel had indeed rejected Michigan’s plan for lacking sufficient information for review.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston said Michigan will submit a revised plan within the week. In her first sit-down interview since taking office, with the Associated Press, DeVos did not address the issue.

Botel has been silent.

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