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Did Betsy DeVos just ask states to ignore part of federal education law?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens as President Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on March 13. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Did Education Secretary Betsy DeVos just ask states to ignore a part of the K-12 federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Let’s look at what she said — and what the law says — about whom state officials should consult as they draw up ESSA accountability plans to be submitted to the Education Department for approval. These plans are supposed to show how states will establish student performance goals and create a system to hold schools “accountable” for student progress.

The ESSA says that state education agencies (SEAs), when developing their accountability plans, must consult with outside stakeholders, including teachers, principals, parents, administrators and others. Language in the law says:

That language makes clear that outside stakeholders are to be included in the process, a requirement outlined in regulations released by former president Barack Obama’s Education Department in November. Congress recently voted to throw out all of the Obama administration’s ESSA regulations.

House overturns two Obama-era education regulations

On Monday, the Education Department issued different language in a new “template” that states can use to create their ESSA accountability plans. It has far fewer requirements than the Obama administration’s template by design; DeVos has said power should be with the states to decide how to run their schools. The new template says states must consult only with one party: the governor.

The new template says:

In its consolidated State plan, each SEA may, but is not required to, include supplemental information such as its overall vision for improving outcomes for all students and its efforts to consult with and engage stakeholders when developing its consolidated State plan.

The department also released a list of frequently asked questions and answers about the new template, including this one:

Q. What voice have outside stakeholders had in revising the template?
A. In developing this new template, the Department of Education (ED) has consulted State educational agencies; governors; organizations representing parents, teachers, and school and district leaders; and advocates for children, including those with disabilities and other students from educationally disadvantaged groups. Even in the very short timeline necessary to provide new information to states, ED invited numerous stakeholders to share their feedback, much of which was incorporated into the final template and other documents.  ED strongly encourages States to consult with these groups.

Strongly encouraging the states isn’t what the actual law says. States are still required to meet ESSA’s statutory requirements even if the Education Department limits the information that they must submit in their consolidated state plans.

Asked about the discrepancy, a spokesman for the Education Department said in an email that there was no discrepancy. “The Secretary’s statement simply amplified what’s in the statute,” the spokesman said.

So far, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is just what her critics feared

ESSA was passed in late 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind law — eight years late — as a reaction to the way the Obama administration dealt with states about education policy. Obama’s Education Department was highly prescriptive about what states had to do to meet its compliance demands for NCLB, so much so that Democrats and Republicans returned a lot of education policy power to the states when they passed ESSA.

The new template sparked criticism, including from the National Governors Association, which said in a statement:

Governors are concerned that the Department’s revised template fails to prioritize proper stakeholder engagement, even though it is a core requirement within the law. NGA has led national efforts to encourage significant input from classroom teachers, parents, superintendents, principals and school boards. We will not waver as a result of this development.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, issued a joint statement, saying:

“We are disappointed that Secretary DeVos is casting aside input from teachers, parents and stakeholders and is refusing to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress intended. Without the strong federal guardrails ESSA puts in place—including requirements for stakeholder consultation and a common state plan—decision making becomes less transparent and puts our most vulnerable children at risk of falling through the cracks.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement:

“One of the problems of education reform over the last two decades was the attempt by billionaires and politicians to impose top-down dictates about what schools should do and how they should do it, and to strip the voices of those closest to kids—their parents and teachers. That was changed by ESSA through its requirement of ‘stakeholder engagement,’ which brings in parent and teacher voices and reflects America’s deep connection to public education. Betsy DeVos’ action betrays the very intention of this law.”