Analysis: DeVos’ first directive, lucid and intelligent?

Analysis: DeVos’ first directive, lucid and intelligent?

(District of Columbia) With all the sound and fury coming out of the nation’s Capital in recent weeks surrounding public schools, one might expect some significant policy shifts away from those that the Obama administration struck with the Republican-led Congress two years ago.

But, as the Bard noted some four centuries ago, sometimes the only thing sound and fury signifies is nothing.

Consider that one of the first moves by President Donald Trump after taking office was a freeze on federal rule-making–a move that, among other things, put some key regulations for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act into question.

Then there was the knock-down, drag out fight over Trump’s nominee as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, which only ended after the vice president cast a historic tie-breaking vote.

Finally, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted last week to repeal regulations governing state compliance with ESSA’s accountability mandates.

Taken in sequence, the actions would suggest big things were coming–perhaps another rewrite of the nation’s primary education law.

But school leaders and state officials from across the country are probably relieved to be reading a letter sent by DeVos late last week, telling them not to worry. Despite everything that has happened, she said in essence, stay the course.

That such a message was promulgated is interesting on two levels:

One, DeVos clearly signaled support from the Trump administration for ESSA as is. “I am writing today to assure you that I fully intend to implement and enforce the statutory requirements of the ESSA,” she said.

Secondly, DeVos also seems to understand that the move in the House–repealing regulations governing ESSA’s accountability requirements–didn’t make a lot of sense.

Among all the ESSA rules proposed by the Obama White House during their last months in office, the accountability rules were perhaps among those most closely aligned with the law itself. Indeed, some of the rules coming from Obama were not–such as the supplanting rule–which drew harsh and broad criticism before being withdrawn.

By removing these regulations, the question becomes what the House might replace them with. Absent a new proposal to rewrite ESSA, the answer would have to be another set of the same rules, perhaps with a coma changed here or there.

DeVos, a well-known supporter of charter schools and voucher funding, drew widespread criticism during her nomination process for flubbing basic questions about national K-12 law. Two Republican Senators even broke ranks to vote against her, saying she didn’t have the qualifications to be the Education Secretary.

But in her letter to state school chiefs released Friday, and, by now, circulating to every district in the nation, DeVos seemed to make the cogent point that even without those regulations in place the law still stands. And since the law and the regulations were closely aligned, states should continue on the path they had already started in terms of developing their ESSA State plans and new accountability systems that go with them.

“The regulatory delay and review, and the potential repeal of recent regulations by Congress, should not adversely affect or delay the progress that States have already made in developing their State plans and transitioning to the ESSA,” she said.

Thus, deadlines for submitting the ESSA State Plans for federal review will not change, she said. States still have the choice of April 3 or September 18.

Further, DeVos said that a template put together by the Obama administration for developing a consolidated plan complying with all federal education programs, can still be used. And, in fact, her department will be releasing a revised template that is intended to be similar to Obama’s, only simpler. 

“The Department will be notifying States and the public of the revised template once it becomes available,” she said. “In the meantime, States should continue their work in engaging with stakeholders and developing their plans based on the requirements under section 8302(b)(3) of the ESEA.”

She closed with a promise to keep states appraised of coming changes.

“I understand that a great deal of work has already gone into the planning and preparation of your State plans, whether that is a consolidated State plan or individual program plans,” she explained. “One of my main priorities as Secretary is to ensure that States and local school districts have clarity during the early implementation of the law. Additionally, I want to ensure that regulations comply with the requirements of the law, provide the State and local flexibility that Congress intended, and do not impose unnecessary burdens.”