Republicans argue school accountability waivers overstep Education secretary authority

Congressional Republicans argued Thursday that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s plans for states to request waivers for certain school accountability requirements during the pandemic appear to overstep his limitations. 

In a letter sent to Cardona’s office, House Education and Labor Committee ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) wrote that while they “applaud the Department’s efforts to provide states clarity around federal requirements for this academic year and for the expedited process being offered,” they were concerned about Cardona’s “commitment to faithfully executing the laws under” his “jurisdiction.” 

The Education Department is requiring that schools participate in standardized testing this school year to measure the effect the pandemic has had on students’ progress.

However, the agency offered states leeway through waivers and has allowed schools to implement shortened versions of the assessments, distributing them remotely and extending the testing window to the fall.

Last month, the Education Department said that states could request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. 

The department said at the time that states that receive the waiver “would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators.”

Last week, Cardona unveiled a waiver template outlining specific circumstances in which states may qualify for exemption from certain requirements. 

However, Foxx and Burr argued Thursday that under current law, the education secretary is prohibited from “disapproving a waiver request based on conditions outside the scope of the request and explicitly lists the circumstances under which the Secretary can disapprove a request.”

“The waiver template the Department released last week appears to violate these statutory limitations,” the GOP members argued, pointing out that the template requires states to report information on “chronic absenteeism and access to technology,” as well as “additional information on a laundry list of other metrics.” 

The elected officials argued that these conditions “are both outside the scope of what states are seeking to be waived and violate specific prohibitions on the Secretary requiring states to report new data beyond existing reporting requirements.”

The letter also addressed the fact that the template “invites states to email the Department if they wish to discuss assessment flexibility.”

“The Obama administration used similarly opaque waiver processes to coerce states into the Department’s preferred policy directions, creating frustration and uncertainty among all stakeholders,” Foxx and Burr continued.

“Signaling your willingness to negotiate with states outside of the public view suggests that the Department might once again resume these extralegal processes.”

The Republicans then asked Cardona to provide additional information on the waivers to “help Congress better understand your legal justification for these elements of the template, and to ensure the public of your commitment to transparency.”

Education Department press secretary Kelly Leon said in a statement to The Hill that the agency had received the letter and “will be in touch directly with these members of Congress.”

“As previously stated, the Department remains committed to reviewing each waiver application on a case-by-case basis and working directly with the states on this matter,” Leon added.

Tags Committee on Education and Labor coronavirus pandemic Education Department Elementary and Secondary Education Act House Miguel Cardona North Carolina Richard Burr Senate standardized testing Virginia Foxx waivers

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