The National Pulse

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

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.

  • The so-called Republican Congress GAVE us that ESSA in the first place. They didn’t even wait till Obama was out to do it. (They had both houses and could have let the ESEA and all of that expire.) Obama called it his “Christmas miracle”. The GOP snuck it through around Thanksgiving so that people wouldn’t be paying as much attention (as they were being opposed during other parts of the year).

    It was another “pass it to see what’s in it” type of scenario.

  • DeVos is IN on the scheme. Maybe not with the Left, but certainly with Big Business and other entities that don’t have good motives for wanting to run education. (Actually, why should they be running it at all?)

    She is tied to Great Lakes Education Project (pro-Common Core), is friends with John Engler (pro-school choice and pro-Common Core) and is with some Jeb Bush (of course pro-Common Core) groups.

  • I have a better idea. Why not have the states get rid of the Department of Education, Common Core, the Department of Labor, etc by taking back control over DC by amending the US Constitution via an Article V convention that would bypass Congress?

  • How is ESSA Constututional ?
    Where does it state in our Constitution the federal government has any right to dictate education policies ?

    • It doesn’t. Problem is, there is no way for the states to counter the growth of the federal government ever since the 17th Amendment was ratified and they no longer controlled the Senate.

      The problem is that there really isn’t any mechanism currently in place in the US Constitution that would let the states RIGHT NOW rein in DC. Nullification is dubious (the Left is currently using it via sanctuary cities so it works both ways) and also limited to only the states nullifying and DC has pushed back, even under federalist Andrew Jackson, when states threatened to nullify.

      No, we need another way and thankfully the Founders saw such a danger where the three branches would be tyrannical and that DC would need to be reined in some other way: an Article V state convention.

  • I worked in USED for 6-7 years including three as an appointee under Lauro Cavazos and Lamar Alexander. Major takeaway – humility! You can’t run schools from Washington, DC. Another is that state plans to trigger federal funds are compliance documents and have little to do with how the funds are spent and the resulting student achievement. Instead, these compliance documents swell the number of central office administrators who generate huge amounts of paperwork for the teachers who must cope with an increasingly low-income and diverse student population. The country simply cannot afford to employ enough compliance monitors for state and local plans. Enough of this craziness! Rewrite ESSA to focus on measuring, reporting and disseminating school and district results and what these entities are spending from all revenue sources to achieve these results. So when you vote for local school board or mayor you’ll have some actionable information.

    • The ESSA needs to go, period. It doesn’t need to be rewritten any more than Obamacare needs to be rewritten. They both need to go and not be replaced.

  • As always, Robbins is insightful and accurate. I’m starting to wonder if “Manning Up” is impossible to most legislators because so few are acquainted with leaders, but many are acquainted with followers.

  • Hear hear! We will never succeed if we simply wait for DC to relinquish control. States must exercise that weak muscle of self determination, recognize that they spend more in compliance than they are getting in grants/title $, and tell the Secretary to stuff it if she doesn’t like their state plan. If the free market of school choice is so good for individual schools, then wouldn’t totally free competition (not competition only in these small areas we let you be different) among the states in education also be good? Alas our state legislatures are like middle schoolers, afraid to be different from everyone else.