A bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators is asking President Obama to rein in the Education Department, arguing that the agency is trying to overreach into matters that Congress intended to be decided by states and school districts.
Their objections arise from two key regulations that the Education Department is seeking to finalize before Obama leaves office. One governs how districts allocate billions of dollars for the education of poor children, and the other outlines how states and districts should design systems to judge which schools are failing and how to intervene to help them improve.
The Education Department and its allies in the civil rights movement — as well as some Senate Democrats — have argued that their approach is not only legal, but is necessary to give the nation’s most disadvantaged children a fair shot at getting a quality education. The regulations have nevertheless drawn criticism from a broad, strange-bedfellows alliance of Republicans, teachers unions and groups representing state education chiefs and local school boards and superintendents, who argue that the department is not only overstepping its authority but also proposing policies that threaten to wreak havoc in schools and run counter to the best interests of needy children.
The 10 senators — including five Republicans, four Democrats and an independent — have now joined that chorus, writing in a one-page letter to Obama that the proposed regulations violate the intent of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the much-reviled No Child Left Behind Act and shifted considerable authority over education from the federal government to the states.
“Most Americans are grateful for the law that Congress, working with you, enacted,” reads the letter, dated Sept. 30. “We urge you to make certain that the Department of Education regulations stay within the statutory text.”
The first signature belongs to Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and has been a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s approach on education. Other signers are Republicans Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Susan Collins (Maine), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.); Democrats Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.); and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment and referred questions to the Education Department. A department spokeswoman did not immediately comment.
The letter not only underscores a simmering policy fight whose outcome will affect schools nationwide, but also highlights a division among Democrats on Capitol Hill. One notable senator who did not sign: Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the education committee, who played a key role in working with Alexander to broker the new bipartisan education law.
“When we worked to pass ESSA, Democrats and Republicans, working with stakeholder groups on all sides, delicately worked to develop a balanced law that increased state and local flexibility when it comes to decision-making on how to run education systems, while also including federal guardrails to ensure that all children have access to high-quality education. These proposed regulations are within the spirit of ESSA and the congressional intent that we agreed to around that balanced approach,” Murray said in a statement to The Washington Post.
“I am encouraged to see the department continuing to gather feedback from stakeholders, including teachers, principals, superintendents, and civil rights groups as it works to implement the law.”
Other Senate Democrats, including some of the most high-profile progressives, have also supported the Obama administration’s regulations. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Christopher A. Coons (Del.) issued a joint statement endorsing the administration’s proposal for school accountability in May. That same month, those four senators and four other Senate Democrats — Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.) and Al Franken (Minn.), along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — sent a letter to Education Secretary John B. King Jr. expressing support for the administration’s direction on Title I spending.