Senators press Obama education chief on reforms

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Senators pressed Education Secretary John King in a hearing Wednesday on the Obama administration’s implementation of a new education law, warning against regulations they said would place new burdens on schools.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee reviewed proposed regulations to enact the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), an overhaul of No Child Left Behind. Both Republicans and Democrats have hailed the law, saying it will empower states and local districts to better evaluate performance and allocate federal funds.

{mosads}But lawmakers cautioned the Obama administration against regulations that don’t embody the letter and spirit of the bill, co-written by Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), during the oversight hearing.

Alexander focused on a proposed rule that would require states to present “evidence” of schools’ performance to federal officials, rather than just assure the Education Department that schools are up to standards. Alexander urged King to closely follow the language in the law.

“We chose our words carefully,” Alexander said, “and any regulation must stay within those words.”

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) also echoed those concerns.

“States shall provide an assurance, a-s-s-u-r-a-n-c-e, assurance, that the state has adopted challenging academic content standards,” he said, noting the requirement for “evidence” could give the Education Department unwarranted oversight.

“This proposed regulation eviscerates the intent of Congress and ESSA,” he added.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also highlighted concerns about a provision that would require states to assign schools letter grades or other rankings.

“The act requires that states evaluate their schools on academic and non-academic factors, but it does not require that each school be given a single rating,” she said. “We seem to be going — in the proposed regulations — away from the new, innovative, educational approaches, in favor of maintaining the status quo.”

King defended the rating system, saying it would help identify schools needing more support and inform parents and community members about how local schools are performing.

Democrats also advocated that the law go to even greater lengths to protect minority students, foster children and the disabled and homeless.

They urged the administration to ensure that all children were adequately protected under the reforms.

“We tried throughout the accountability regulations to preserve the important civil rights guardrails,” King said.

“This work is going to require continued vigilance on the part not only of the federal government, but of states and districts, to make sure we don’t let states fall through the cracks.”

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