They Think They’re ‘Smarter’
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander recently expressed surprise that the federal Department of Education isn’t planning to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act in the way he expected. The legislation was supported by Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi. It was passed by the House and the Senate in December of 2015, although it was widely opposed by conservatives, concerned parents, and grassroots organizations. Over 200 of them signed a letter to Congress that detailed their objections last October. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was flawed even before its passage in December of 2015, by which time many important provisions had been stripped from the 1,061-page bill.
In April, during the first oversight hearing about the implementation of ESSA law, Sen. Alexander told newly confirmed Education Secretary John King, “Already we are seeing disturbing evidence of an Education Department that is ignoring the law that the 22 members of this committee worked so hard to craft.”
Despite his apparent inattention to warnings that the bill was a monstrosity that contained no binding provisions meant to contain or decrease federal power in favor of state and local control, Sen. Alexander now accuses the new chief of the Education Department of doing exactly what many observers expected the overbearing feds to do.
Several hearings are scheduled in order to determine how ESSA will be enacted. Over 1,000 pages of legislation apparently didn’t provide space for such mundane details.
Congress failed to listen to those who said that John King was disrespectful to New York parents and was a disaster as that state’s Commissioner of Education. Instead, they confirmed President Obama’s pick to be national Education Secretary. “King led a series of reforms in New York for 3½ years that were so badly administered that he abruptly left his position in late 2014 amid a tornado of criticism and moved to Washington to become No. 2 to then-education secretary Arne Duncan, who didn’t seem to mind King’s controversial N.Y. tenure.” (Washington Post, 4-13-16)
During the hearing about the implementation of ESSA, Alexander said to King:
I don’t think that I need to rehearse the fact that this bill passed by a huge margin, 359-64 in the House. And 85-12 in the Senate. . . . The reason we were able to achieve such unusual unanimity and consensus is, to put it bluntly, that local school boards, classroom teachers in states, had gotten tired of the U.S. Department of Education telling them so much about what to do.
So the legislation we passed not only got rid of those things, we went further in a remarkable way and have explicit prohibitions on what a future [education] secretary might do. This was all a dramatic change; it’s called the ‘largest devolution of responsibility for education from the federal government to the states in 25 years.’
What Senator Alexander seems to miss is that just calling it something doesn’t make it so. Common Core was called “higher, better standards,” which were “evidence-based.” They were actually lower and worse standards, which had never been tested in any manner whatsoever, anywhere. In the real world, attention to what is actually happening is more important than claims made to fool the public. And legislators.
Among things the oversight committee is distressed about in the Department of Education drafts that indicate how they intend to implement ESSA are demands that states must prove to the federal government that there is an equivalent amount of money spent in every school district within a state. Congress debated this policy and it was rejected. But the feds have found a way to interpret the law differently than was intended.
In fact, Arne Duncan boasted last year in a Politico article that his team was smarter than the legislators, and that they had language in the law that would continue and expand federal control of education. Arne Duncan said, “Candidly, our lawyers are much smarter than many of the folks who were working on this bill.” (PoliticoPro.com, 12-2015)
The ESSA law includes major flaws, about which legislators were warned before they passed it. Many hadn’t even read the bill, the final draft of which was released only hours before voting was to take place. But concerned groups of parents divided it up into sections and they did read it. Then they made lawmakers aware of the gaps, tricks, and errors that were included. Lawmakers didn’t listen.
ESSA mandates that 95% of students participate in state tests. This changes the main way parents were able to protect their children from too much or unnecessary testing. If parents believe the tests are bad or there are too many of them, they could opt out. The new law effectively eliminates that option.
During the hearing, John King tried to get tricky with language. Sen. Alexander at one point said, “Mr. King, do you know how ridiculous the statement is you just made? If I read you plain English, if I say A, B, C and you say it’s D,E,F, how can that be?”
This isn’t a question of King knowing educrat terminology with which Alexander is unfamiliar. Lamar Alexander was Secretary of Education before he became a senator. This is a case of double-speak and trickery.
As Alexander said to King, “This sounds to me exactly like the kind of thing the department got into with academic standards in Common Core. You basically said that states didn’t have to adopt Common Core, but then you came up with requirements on standards that, in effect, required them all to do it.” (Washington Post, 4-13-16)
Sen. Lee Sounded a Warning
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) apparently read the ESSA legislation and studied John King’s professional record. At King’s confirmation hearing in March, Lee said about ESSA:
There are several provisions that prohibit the Secretary of Education from controlling state education plans or coercing states into adopting federal standards and testing regimes. But when you look at the fine print, you see that in most cases these prohibitions against federal overreach contain no enforcement mechanisms — only vague, aspirational statements encouraging the Secretary to limit his own powers.
Then he recommended that his colleagues vote against the confirmation of King, saying: “Based on the policies that he has supported, the bipartisan opposition he has invited throughout his career, and his uncompromising commitment to the designs of bureaucrats and central planners over the lived experiences of parents and teachers, I believe it would be a grave error for the Senate to confirm Dr. King’s nomination.” (Lee.Sen.gov, 3-14-16)
Many question whether the Department of Education should even exist. If it is allowed to exist, it must be severely reigned in. The ESSA law has so far failed to do that. As Sen. Alexander said, “It isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if not implemented properly.” This is especially true since Congress confirmed the wrong person as Secretary of Education.