Man Up, State Leaders! It’s Time to Declare Independence on Education!

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With implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) under the U.S. Department of Education (USED), objections are flying to this or that policy (to the extent policy can be discerned). Conservatives criticize continued USED heavy-handedness and mixed signals, particularly by Secretary DeVos’ Democratic lieutenant Jason Botel, with respect to critiquing state plans. Liberals fear funding cuts and relaxed requirements related to certain subgroups of students. Both sides decry the apparent confusion emanating from USED.

But it’s worth asking why USED deserves such attention in the first place. ESSA was sold (duplicitously) as restoring the constitutional requirement of state and local control over education. Why are so few state officials seriously demanding that control, rather than merely more clarity from USED?

Education Week reports on a recent hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where various parties vented in this summer of their discontent. Mainly addressing inconsistent messages coming from USED about whether various state plans pass muster, most speakers demanded greater guidance from Washington. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) complained, “There is a lot of confusion out there, and we need people from the department . . . to answer questions about, where are we going?” A local superintendent from Arizona agreed: “It’s important to have that consistent feedback because then . . . we can move on with the implementation of ESSA.”

Max Eden of the right-leaning Manhattan Institute has also urged USED to “issue a statement or guidance telling states exactly how they intend to make their final decisions.” To be sure, Eden wants USED to allow significant leeway on state plans, but he’s willing to tolerate “nitpicky” demands from USED if “it’s trying to encourage coherence rather than delineate deal-breakers.”

All of this attention is oriented toward Washington — to clarify what the federal overlords require of the provincials so they can proceed with the latest fed-ed debacle. This is no surprise to people who actually read the 1,061-page ESSA, which in fact codifies much Obama USED policy regarding state plans, standards, assessments, etc. Though Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has taken to sputtering about USED’s interference with the intent of ESSA — to “liberate” the states, he says — surely the Senator understands that of all predictable consequences of ESSA, “liberation” isn’t one of them.

As Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) understated at the House hearing, “ESSA is not and has never been a free-for-all.” Indeed.

This chatter illustrates a deeper problem. Over the last 50 years, state education establishments and their auxiliary politicians have developed a Washington-dependent mindset. State educrats continually tell parents, for example, that the Common Core standards can’t be ditched because what else would Washington approve? What else could we possibly use? And what about assessments? Heaven forbid we implement our own testing policy, because surely Washington knows best. We must seek permission from Washington to make any changes that push the ESSA envelope. Is it worth risking our federal money to venture from the tried-and-(un)true?

Obviously, ESSA restricts both USED and the states. But USED could do much more to achieve the “liberation” that Alexander claims Congress intended. For example, USED could announce it will interpret all statutory provisions as leniently as possible. At the outset, the correct policy would be to approve all state plans — after all, if a plan is satisfactory to a state, which has the most to lose from a poor education system, it should satisfy the feds as well.

Many other actions are available to DeVos to begin diminishing federal control over education. Joy Pullmann has offered an extensive list, which DeVos should be sure to read since she apparently hasn’t yet.

Whether or not DeVos takes this advice, where are the constitutionalist state officials who will stand up and declare their independence? When will they leverage Alexander’s claim about “liberation” — even though it’s not true — and dare USED to stop them?

Or, if USED threatens the flow of federal money, when will states be strong enough to just say no to the bribery? States should rediscover the lost art of bluff-calling. And in the unlikely event the money is pulled (still leaving the state with about 90 percent or more of its education budget intact), the state may discover how much more efficiently it can deliver a real education without stifling and costly federal mandates.

But none of this will happen as long as state officials retain the DC-centric mindset, doubting their ability to run their own education systems without guidance from federal bureaucrats who couldn’t organize a two-car funeral. Man up, guys — liberation awaits!


Jane Robbins

Jane Robbins is an attorney and senior fellow with the American Principles Project.