Republicans and the lost promise of local control in education


When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was enacted in 2015 to replace the hated No Child Left Behind law, the new legislation’s supporters trumpeted that, henceforth, control over education would reside with the states.

“With this bill,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) promised, “we are sending power back to the people.”

Candidate Donald Trump ran on the issue of local control, and as president has directed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to restore it. She has promised to do so. “Let us continue to move power away from Washington, D.C., and into the hands of parents and state and local leaders,” she said recently.

{mosads}But warning signs on the horizon indicate these promises are waning. First came news that the Department of Education may deny Alabama’s request to replace a student assessment that even the department admitted is problematic. Now Education Week reports that the department has told three other states — Delaware, Nevada and New Mexico — they must provide a slew of additional information before their mandatory ESSA state plans can be approved.


Much more of this local control, and the feds will have to hire new bureaucrats just to keep up.

Grassroots activists warned for months when ESSA was under construction that it didn’t restore state autonomy as its proponents claimed. The most glaring example of continuing federal control was the bill’s mandate that each state submit a “state plan” (actually a federal plan) describing in detail how the state planned to comply with all the federal requirements that supposedly would no longer exist. The grassroots weren’t comforted by DeVos’ early pronouncement that approving state plans was “a good and important role for the federal government.”

Now we’re seeing how that’s playing out. As Alabama, Delaware, Nevada and New Mexico can attest, the new sheriff looks a whole lot like the old sheriff.

Delaware has been rebuked for, among other things, giving schools more than one option for measuring college- and career-readiness, combining racial and ethnic groups in some parts of its plan and counting science and social-studies scores in its “academic indicators” (the Education Department, apparently defining “education” as narrowly as possible, says only English and math should count). The department also tut-tuts that the Delaware plan sets insufficiently ambitious goals for student achievement. ESSA doesn’t define “ambitious,” but a federal overlord in a cubicle will apparently impose his own definition.

As for Nevada and New Mexico, the Education Department raises a long list of complaints demanding more information. How much weight are you giving to language arts? How will “closing opportunity gaps” work? How, exactly, will you move teachers around to ensure “equity”?

Our personal favorite: How will New Mexico ensure all students have the opportunity to be ready for advanced math in eighth grade? The best answer to that question would be to ditch the Common Core standards, but that’s probably not the option the department is looking for, or would accept.

Some edu-crats are happy with the federal government’s continued heavy-handedness. “It’s a good sign that you actually have the federal government saying here are the things we need more information on,” Chris Minnich said of the department’s review. Minnich is with the Council of Chief State School Officers — one of the owners of Common Core.

If you think states are incapable of running their own education systems, what’s not to like? This is certainly the view of some of the Obama apparatchiks DeVos hired to help her implement ESSA, so these developments should come as no surprise.

But if you’re one of the poor souls who fell for the “ESSA restores local control” propaganda (which includes most of the Republicans in Congress), you might feel just a bit betrayed. And maybe you’ll re-think what gives the federal government the right to impose any of these requirements in an area in which it has no constitutional authority. You might even begin to consider the radical idea of returning to the Constitution.

Late last year, ESSA author Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was in full “local control” mode when he exhorted state officials to test the boundaries of what they can do under ESSA. In fact, Alexander advised them to consider legal action. “You can take the department to court, and I hope that you do.”

Will some of these states take him up on it?

Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins are senior fellows at the American Principles Project, a conservative nonprofit working to advance human dignity through public policy. 

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Betsy DeVos Donald Trump Education ESSA Lamar Alexander No Child Left Behind Paul Ryan Paul Ryan President Trump

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