Will Utah Fight for Parental Control After Feds Deny ESSA Opt-Out Waiver?

So much for returning educational autonomy to the states.

In his inaugural address, President Trump sounded a clarion call for transferring power from the federal government to the people:

[T]oday we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.  What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Fine words, but they haven’t been put into action with respect to education policy. 

The most recent example comes from Utah. In early May the Utah State Board of Education requested a waiver, which U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is statutorily empowered to grant, from a federal testing requirement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). That mandate is that states include at least 95% of their students in the statewide tests. This provision is intended to ensuring the reliability of federally mandated accountability measures (notice how often the words “require” and “mandate” come up in discussions of the supposedly state-empowering ESSA). If its testing participation rate drops below 95%, the state must count every non-tested student as zero or non-proficient. Although highly misleading, this calculation ratchets down the state’s “academic achievement indicator” and can result in various negative federal consequences.

Utah requested the waiver because state law specifically protects the rights of parents to opt their children out of statewide assessments. It also forbids the State Board of Education from imposing negative consequences on schools or employees because of the number of opt-outs. 

One reason for the rising opt-out numbers is discontent with the SAGE (Student Assessment for Growth and Excellence) test. SAGE was developed for Utah by the American Institutes for Research, which is not an academic-assessment company but rather a behavioral-research organization. In increasing numbers, parents have concluded they don’t want their children subjected to problem-riddled testing that hasn’t been proven academically valid – especially when, as shown by Dr. Christopher Tienken, Common Core testing is designed more to centralize control over education policy than to benefit student learning.

The clash here, then, was between parents’ inherent right to govern their children’s education and indeed protect them from harm, as explicitly protected by state law, and federal mandates. Guess which won?

On May 31 the U.S. Department of Education (USED) denied the request for a waiver. USED found that a waiver wouldn’t “advance academic achievement” as required by the statutory waiver provision, because failure to force test participation would mean not all students were subjected to federally incentivized standards and federally mandated tests. 

Significantly, the denial letter came from Jason Botel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, appointed to that position by DeVos. Mr. Botel is a shining example of the problematic personnel she has brought to the department – he publicly praised Common Core (which DeVos’s boss vigorously opposes), he supports a strong federal role in education, and he has spoken favorably of the radical group Black Lives Matter. His pro-federal-power predilections are clear in this dismissal of the Utah waiver request. 

Utah isn’t the only state to be slapped down by federal bureaucrats over the test-participation mandate. Colorado suffered the same fate until it reached a compromise with USED in early May, essentially establishing two different accountability systems – one state, one federal. And rather than fight for state and parental rights, Colorado educrats agreed to come up with more incentives to lure students into the statewide assessments.

The question is, will the Utah State Board of Education wilt under federal pressure, or will it stand and fight? At a hearing on this issue, local school board member Wendy Hart pointed out what’s at stake here – if the State Board backs down, thus forcing more students to undergo behavioral assessment aligned with Common Core, it will fail to uphold not only state law and the 10th Amendment to the federal Constitution but also the fundamental right of parents to educate and protect their children. 

Utah law is clear about who’s in charge of education: “A student’s parent or guardian is the primary person responsible for the education of the student, and the state is in a secondary and supportive role to the parent or guardian.” The Utah Supreme Court has identified “parents’ inherent right and authority to rear their own children” as “fundamental to our society and . . . basic to our constitutional order. . . .” In other words, what President Trump promised at his inauguration has actual statutory and judicial force in Utah.

Will the State Board of Education stand on these principles? Will Betsy DeVos? If not, both of them should be called to account. This should be a YUGE issue in Utah political races in November.

DeVos’ Staff Picks Would Make Jeb Bush Proud

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (CC-By-SA 2.0)

If Jeb Bush can’t be president, he would probably settle for the consolation prize of control over the Department of Education (USED). Bush was happy with President Trump’s “outstanding” appointment of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education, and with her most recent appointments, DeVos has indicated Bush can still be proud of her.

Through organizations she founded and led and through serving on the board of his foundation, DeVos has demonstrated her affinity with Bush on almost all important education issues: supporting the Common Core national standards (although she backtracked, sort of, when she was nominated for secretary), school choice, digital training rather than genuine education, sweeping collection and use of student data by government and corporations, and increased preschool programs to get toddlers into government schooling.  If Trump intended to keep the education promises he made during the campaign, DeVos isn’t the obvious person to help him do it.

DeVos also populated USED with bureaucrats from the Bush wing of education policy, including Democrat and Black Lives Matter supporter Jason Botel (since departed, after angering DeVos’s Michigan friends over that state’s ESSA plan). Conservative activists were disappointed and mystified by these choices, especially since there’s no shortage of solid, highly qualified Common Core opponents who were available (Bill Evers, Sandra Stotsky, and Peg Luksik come to mind).

DeVos’s most recent appointments are a mixed bag. She has chosen former South Carolina State Superintendent Mick Zais for Deputy Secretary at USED. On the one hand, Zais vocally opposed Common Core as S.C. Superintendent; on the other, the review process he put in place resulted in a virtual rebrand of Common Core. According to English and math standards experts Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, in some respects the new standards are even inferior to the national standards.

Zais also, to his credit, pulled the state out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. But the replacement was the ACT Aspire assessment, which is aligned to Common Core. If S.C. is using a Common Core test, it’s using Common Core.

The most hopeful aspect of Zais’s background is his support of local control in education. In 2011 he withdrew S.C. from the competition for Race to the Top bribery dollars, explaining: “The Race to the Top program expands the federal role in education by offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington. More federal money for education will not solve our problems. Schools need less, not more, federal intrusion to increase student achievement.”

So the Zais pick is disappointing in some aspects, promising in others. But the appointment of James Blew as Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy has less of an upside.

Blew comes from Student Success California, affiliated with 50CAN (the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now). 50CAN is the successor organization to Students First, founded by Michelle Rhee and taken over by Blew when she left. Students First enthusiastically supported Common Core as “establishing rigor for all students.”

Before his Students First/50CAN gig, Blew was the Walton Family Foundation’s Director of K-12 Reform. Under his leadership, Walton donated millions to Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Even more disturbing, Walton “ardently” supported Common Core and, according to commentators in Arkansas, flexed its muscle to block conservatives there from removing the standards.

With this background, Blew epitomizes the “government-foundation cartel” model of educational policy-making. Theorists in private foundations, who may know little about education, advance their pet policies by 1) placing their people in positions of influence in federal and state governments, and 2) investing millions to propagate their theories and impose them on children and parents nationwide, utterly unaccountable for failure.

Another interesting tidbit is that Blew, like Botel, was or is a registered Democrat. DeVos couldn’t find an anti-Common Core conservative for that post?

Perhaps Blew was chosen because of his previous work on school choice, which is DeVos’s passion. But nothing about his background suggests conservatives can consider him an ally in restoring local control over education.

For months now, conservatives have begged DeVos to spearhead Trump’s promised swamp-draining at USED. From a policy standpoint, her record is mixed; for example, there’s been some inching away from federal hypercontrol over state assessments and from abject surrender to the LGBT lobby, but neither has been accomplished with clarity and confidence.

But from a personnel standpoint, DeVos’s record is, as her boss might say, a disaster. Though she has chosen a few solid people such as Candice Jackson for civil-rights enforcement, even there the resulting policy revisions have been tentative. And too many of the people selected for K-12 policy can be expected to continue the trajectory launched by progressive educators a century ago and reaching new heights under Obama and his secretaries.

With the proper personnel, the Trump administration could revolutionize public education by restoring to states their constitutional authority –to create their own standards, choose their own assessments, hire and evaluate their own teachers, and structure their system however they see fit. Will DeVos make that happen? Or will she allow Democrat and Bush minions to undermine the agenda her boss ran on? Too soon to tell, but the warning signs are there.

Jason Botel Is Reportedly Out After Michigan’s ESSA Plan Is Rejected

Acting Assistant Secretary of Elementary & Secondary Education Jason Botel
Photo credit: PSO Texas/Twitter

The Detroit Free Press reported last week that Michigan’s state accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act has been rejected, and Acting Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Jason Botel did the rejecting.

Michigan’s big plan to improve its schools has been deemed “insufficient” by federal education officials, but the state’s top educator said Tuesday evening he expects to resolve the problems within a week.

“The department has determined that the information provided by Michigan was insufficient … to adequately review” the plan, Jason Botel, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said in a letter sent Friday.

Michigan was among 16 states and the District of Columbia that submitted plans for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act — the law governing elementary and secondary education in the nation — earlier this year. Other states plan to submit their plans in the fall.

Botel was a surprise pick by the administration due to his support for Common Core, as well as, being a known progressive.

Now there are reports that Botel is out at the U.S. Department of Education. Alyson Klein at Education Week wrote that sources have said he may take on another role within the Trump administration or leave altogether.

Klein also noted the criticism that he has received:

In that role he’s gotten criticism, including from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and an ESSA architect. Alexander and others have said Botel has gone beyond the boundaries of the law, particularly in his feedback to Delaware which questioned the ambitiousness of the state’s goals. Alexander told Education Week that it appeared Botel hadn’t read the law carefully.

And some state chiefs were miffed at the Trump administration’s responses to their ESSA plans, in part because Trump officials questioned whether states could use Advanced Placement tests to gauge college readiness. Those responses were particularly surprising given that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had signaled a strong preference for local-control over education, and told chiefs in a closed-door meeting earlier this year that they could turn in their plans even if they weren’t fully complete.

It seems to me, though we will never know for certain, is that Botel wasn’t following DeVos’ lead on handling the state accountability plans. Rejecting her home state of Michigan’s plan may have been a bridge too far.  If he is out because of his handling of ESSA accountability plans, this could be an encouraging sign of greater flexibility going forward which is probably the best we can hope for until Congress repeals the law.

Right now all we can do is speculate what this means for the future.

Alabama Is an Example that Local Control Under ESSA Is a Sham

Photo credit: Jim Bowen (CC-By-2.0)

Tricia Powell Crain with AL.com reported last week that the Alabama State Board of Education learned at their last meeting that the U.S. Department of Education denied the state’s request to dump ACT Aspire and use interim tests next spring.

She wrote:

The U.S. Department of Education rejected Alabama superintendent Michael Sentance’s request to use different tests next spring.

Sentance and board members have expressed their dislike for the ACT Aspire in recent months and need the waiver in order to keep from having to renew the ACT Aspire contract for another year. The board must either renew or cancel the contract with ACT Aspire by July 1.

Sentance told board members he and other state education staffers held a phone conference last week with Acting Assistant Secretary of Education, Jason Botel, and other federal education officials to ask for permission to stop using the ACT Aspire.

Instead, Sentance wanted to use a series of interim tests, given throughout the 2017-2018 school year, to measure student progress and growth while Alabama decided on a new annual test to use for federal accountability.

Telling board members the phone call was “pretty unsatisfactory,” Sentance said, “It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be no.”

Alyson Klein at Education Week reports that the U.S. Department of Education has not made their final decision:

The U.S. Department of Education however, has a different take: They haven’t given their final answer yet.

“We have received Alabama’s formal waiver request and it is being assessed,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman.

So we are to believe Superintendant Sentance just misunderstood? It had to be pretty clear what the decision was going to be if he told the board members they said no.

Also, this is what the Trump administration considers local control? This is EXACTLY the type of authority that the Every Student Succeeds Act gave the Secretary of Education, and this power is something Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said was appropriate for the federal government.

Klein also pointed out:

It’s not a total surprise though, that the conversation may not have gone as Alabama hoped. The Every Student Succeeds Act does indeed allow states to use a series of interim—assessment-speak for short-term—tests instead of one big overall exam for accountability purposes.

But these interim tests must meet certain quality requirements, ESSA says. For instance, the onus is on the state to show that the interim tests do indeed provide the same information as a single summative score. And the tests are supposed to go through the department’s rigorous peer review process. It would be a big deal for DeVos to waive those requirements.

And it’s not clear that the interim tests Alabama was asking to use met the law’s standards. (We’ve put out a call to the Alabama Department of Education and will update if we hear back.)

We do know, however, that ACT Aspire didn’t quite meet the federal department’s requirements for tests that are rigorous and reflect state academic standards. The department said so in a recent peer-review letter.

The Trump administration has a big decision here. They can give lip service to local control, or they actually can respect it and allow Alabama to proceed.

Is Anyone Paying Attention to Trump’s Education Team?

Photo credit: 50 Can

Is anyone in the White House paying attention to the appointments for Trump’s education team? It’s understandable that with so many pressing policy concerns facing the Administration that a few bad eggs might get through the appointment process, but this is getting ridiculous!

The 74 reports that Jason Botel, Senior White House Adviser on Education, did not support Trump, favors an active federal role in education, supports Common Core, and is viewed by education advocacy groups in his home state of Maryland as a Progressive. He also publicly voiced his support for Black Lives Matter– who defaced Trump’s hotel in NYC.

Trump needs to tell this guy (and whoever suggested him), “You’re fired!”