Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Alabama Wants Local Control over Education. Will President Trump Deliver?


During the 2015 fight over the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), over 200 parent and conservative organizations and leaders denounced the bill due to its extension of tight control over state and local education by the federal government — features it retained from its No Child Left Behind predecessor. One of the strongest concerns was the law giving the education secretary veto power over state plans. Although the authors and proponents of ESSA have constantly spewed forth propaganda that the Common Core Standards are gone at the federal level and that state and local control have returned for the first time in twenty-plus years, a new development in Alabama is putting these talking points to the test — and early indications are not good.

At issue is the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED) decision on Alabama’s waiver request to replace the state’s test. The process to this point has been a picture of contradictions and inconsistency. According to Alabama State Board member Betty Peters, the state has long been dissatisfied with the current state test, the ACT Aspire:

As Alabama Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance recently told local news outlets, the ACT Aspire test “gives very little information back to schools about what is actually being tested. They don’t release test questions; that doesn’t help teachers understand what’s being asked of them as a result.”

As Mrs. Peters goes on to explain, USED agreed with Alabama that the test was very problematic, and all the key stakeholders agreed that there should be a new test:

According to a letter [link added] sent to Superintendent Sentence at the beginning of the year, it appeared that USED agreed that using the ACT Aspire was problematic. In fact, after an extensive peer review of the test, USED had concluded that the state’s use of ACT Aspire may not satisfy federal requirements, and placed a condition on the state’s receipt of $247 million in Title 1 funding: “External peer reviews and Department staff peer reviewers and Department staff evaluated Alabama’s submission of evidence about ACT Aspire and found, based on the evidence received, that the components of your assessment system meet some, but not all, of the statutory and regulatory requirements of [ESSA].”

In light of the many problems with the test—problems recognized by USED—Alabama teachers, state board members, and Superintendent Sentence reached a consensus that the contract with ACT should be ended and a better test developed. The problem we face is that a new test takes a year or more to develop and wouldn’t be available for students to take during the 2017-2018 school year to satisfy federal testing requirements. Sentence has asked USED to grant the state a waiver to administer interim assessments instead of the ACT Aspire next year while a new assessment is being developed.

Yet despite that agreement, a phone conference between Superintendent Sentence and Acting Assistant Secretary Jason Botel was perceived as a negative response to the Alabama request (Hat tip: Shane Vander Hart):

Telling board members the phone call was “pretty unsatisfactory,” Sentance said, “It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be no.”

It is important to note here that Botel is described on a liberal website as a progressive Democrat that supports Common Core, charter schools (that still must test and teach to the Common Core in most states), and the social justice/Black Lives Matter movements.

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Even President Obama’s USED granted waivers to Alaska in 2016 and Nevada in 2015 excusing them from testing for one year due to massive technical difficulties with the mandated computerized Common Core-aligned state tests. Comparatively, all Alabama is asking for is a waiver to do interim assessments for one year in order to develop new tests and opt out of their current contract with ACT Aspire. This is something that ESSA, under its alleged increased flexibility for states on testing, is supposed to allow states to do — though, according to Education Week, this is not really coming to fruition.

Then there are the contradictory statements from Secretary DeVos herself. On the one hand, she was quoted in an interview as saying, correctly, that “…when it comes down to it, education and the provision of education is really a state and local responsibility to a large extent.” On the other hand, she said in a different interview that secretarial approval of state plans is a “good and important role for the federal government.” It is noteworthy that Mrs. DeVos did not issue a public statement on the occasion of her own boss’ issuance of an executive order to rein in the federal government’s role in education.

According to Education Week, USED is still examining Alabama’s waiver request. But this is a major test case of whether President Trump will be able to keep a major campaign promise to his many anti-Common Core supporters: downsizing the federal role in education. Allowing states to manage their education plans is just one of the elements necessary for Mr. Trump to keep that promise.

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The stranglehold of this completely unconstitutional federal department must be broken. APP’s Emmett McGroarty said it well:

The fact that Alabama can’t freely choose its assessments confirms that ESSA failed to return control over K-12 education back to state and local government.  No person, no administration has come up with a way for the federal government to exercise such power without it being an unaccountable political bully. It is time to stop this farce and to truly return education policymaking to state and local government, where it would be closest to parents and other citizens.

Students must be able to learn not just for workforce preparation but also to understand and perpetuate the principles of freedom to maintain our republic. The future of the nation depends on it. Federal micromanaging of tests and standards is no way to maintain liberty.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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