Friday Reading List: A Long, Strange Trip on Federal Rules

Yesterday, Congress voted to ditch the rigorous accountability rules that the Obama administration had written for "ESSA," the big federal education law that passed in 2015. Dana Goldstein of The New York Times has the story:

When Mr. Obama signed the act in December 2015, many Democrats and Republicans alike celebrated the supposed end of what they saw as an era of federal overreach into local schools. The measure, known as ESSA, took a more collaborative approach than its predecessor, No Child Left Behind ... It took less than a year for that bipartisan consensus to fall apart. It is customary for federal agencies to issue detailed regulations on how new laws should be put into effect, and Mr. Obama’s Department of Education did so in November. But some lawmakers from both parties saw the regulations as unusually aggressive and far-reaching, and said they could subvert ESSA’s intent of re-establishing local control over education and decreasing the emphasis on testing.

Cutting through the noise is difficult on this issue; the substance of the accountability rules is obscured by the turf tension over whether the states or the federal government ought to have the power to set those rules. States that want to set rigorous accountability standards for underserved children still can, and likely will. As Mike Magee, who runs a network of state commissioners of education, wrote in The Hechinger Report:

... by holding themselves to a high standard, our members will set the bar for strong ESSA plans that align not only with the basic statutory requirements, but also with these principles of excellence and equity – pushing collectively to enact policies and systems that foster innovation and lasting change and lead to dramatic improvements in educational outcomes for all students.

In other words, if the feds set the bar too low, some states will still do their jobs. That's great, but they're not the problem. Other states may not be so forward thinking. That's why The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest advocacy organization for Latinos, is concerned about these changes:

Including strong accountability regulations in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was critical to NCLR’s support for the law. We worked closely with stakeholders and the Obama administration to help draft and provide meaningful feedback on those rules, which are designed to better track and improve children’s educational performance. However, the recent House vote to strip ESSA of those accountability protections is cause for concern. If the repeal succeeds, it could have dramatic consequences for children around the country.

Before the early 2000s, states could basically do whatever they wanted with regard to monitoring schools. I know this will shock you, but in that milieu, some states ignored the performance of their most vulnerable kids, including Black and Latino students.

That's why more than fifty different civil rights organizations urged the administration to keep more stringent rules for accountability when Congress considered ESSA in 2015. As Chad Aldeman, a policy expert at Bellwether Education, pointed out on twitter yesterday, the law itself is vague, making the rules critical for how states implement the law:

Today's "Reading List" has been a bit wonkier than usual, but there's a reason. Remember I warned you that in appointing Betsy DeVos as education secretary, Trump and his Republican party had embraced some of the worst ideas in educational innovation (i.e. vouchers), while jettisoning some of the best ones (i.e. high standards for our most vulnerable kids)? It was impossible to deny DeVos's infatuation with vouchers, but I kept hearing from apologists that the Trump-DeVos regime could be counted on to remain strong on accountability ...

Have a nice weekend!