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Don’t Expect Betsy DeVos to Wade Into State-Level Showdowns Over Who Gets Final ESSA Approval, Expert Says

By Beth Hawkins | October 10, 2017

With the deadline for states to submit their plans for meeting the requirements of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act now passed, an interesting question arises: Who, besides U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, must sign off on the accountability plans?

Elected officials in several states have complained to the feds about the plans their state education agencies ultimately submitted. Those plans, they argue, don’t pass muster with the governor or lieutenant governor, members of the state Board of Education, or lawmakers.

(Read ESSA Essentials, a weekly series updating ESSA developments in every state in the country produced by The 74 and the Collaborative for Student Success)

The grievances are varied and technical, but in most cases they assert that the new state plans are a step backward in terms of school accountability and transparency. Which is, of course, the perennial tension undergirding education policy: One camp fears that strict regulation constitutes federal “overreach” into a realm best left to localities, while the other stresses that pressure from Washington is frequently the only thing that prods states to hold school districts and public charter schools accountable.

Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia is among the officials who refused to sign off on their state’s plan, something he said he intended to make clear to DeVos. Deal was not immediately available for comment, but state Board of Education appointee Larry Winters told The 74 Friday that the plan “leaves too much on the table.”

Among Winters’s contentions: The plan proposed by state Superintendent Richard Woods gives schools credit on their overall ratings for enrolling disadvantaged students but does not require progress to be made on meeting their needs; does not include any type of measurement of progress for kindergartners through second-graders; and gives student attendance, which he asserts schools have little control over, too big a role in deciding which schools are underperforming.

Under the Georgia constitution, Winters says, the board is responsible for setting education policy and rules. The final plan, he says, was never submitted to the board.

This might have been a problem if states had been required to submit their plans while Barack Obama was president, says Bellwether Education principal Chad Aldeman, whose group led its own extensive critique of state ESSA plans. But DeVos overturned the Obama administration’s directive and issued new guidance to states saying they must consult the governor and other stakeholders, allowing state education agencies to go ahead and submit plans without the executives’ sign-off.

(The 74: Exclusive: Independent Review of ESSA Plans Rates States Strong on Accountability, Weak on Counting All Kids)

As to a statement released by Pennsylvania lawmakers, including Senate Education Committee Chair John Eichelberger, Aldeman suggests much of the discontent over whose input made the final plans is a political or legal dispute to be settled within a state.

Eichelberger argues that Pennsylvania is one of four states whose constitutions explicitly grants the legislature authority over education. Among his issues with the plan submitted is that the state will no longer give schools summative scores, that new factors schools will be required to report will make data confusing and, like Georgia’s Winters, that attendance isn’t a helpful metric.

Michigan’s lieutenant governor has raised concerns about rules regarding students who qualify for special education in his state’s controversial plan, while Louisiana Superintendent John White’s plan — already approved by DeVos — has drawn the ire of his political foe, Gov. John Bel Edwards.

While Winters and Eichelberger say they absolutely expect DeVos to respond — in Winters’s case, to the governor — it shouldn’t be with bated breath, if Aldeman is right. The politics, he notes, might not move the education secretary to get involved but could have the effect of drawing the public’s attention to a process with major implications that could otherwise fly under the radar.

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