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Minnesota proceeds with caution — and questions — as it complies with federal education law under DeVos

REUTERS/Mike Segar
President Donald Trump’s controversial Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has supported conservative education causes — like providing vouchers to students attending private schools — and an ethos of taking power away from D.C.

A little over a year ago, Barack Obama signed into law the biggest K-12 education reform in over a decade: the Every Student Succeeds Act, a product of years-long compromise in Congress, was intended to smooth over the shortcomings of the previous education law of the land, No Child Left Behind.

The bill, informally called ESSA, aims to lighten the footprint of the federal government in K-12 education policy. Democrats and Republicans in Congress agreed to give local education policymakers greater authority to decide how schools and students were performing, and to decide how to allocate federal education dollars.

Minnesota and other states are currently working on their plans for complying with ESSA, and they will ultimately require approval from the U.S. Department of Education. Those plans, however, will arrive in a Washington under much different leadership than the one that signed ESSA into law.

Where Obama’s team believed there was an important role for the federal government to play in education, President Donald Trump’s controversial Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has supported conservative education causes — like providing vouchers to students attending private schools — and an ethos of taking power away from D.C.  

At the same time, in her brief tenure as education chief so far, DeVos has signaled she may use her authority to encourage states to adopt policies in line with those of conservative reformers. Compounding that, Congress has overturned Obama regulations that set some boundaries for complying with the new law — leading many in the education world to believe it’s open season on education policy in the states.

As they draw up plans to comply with ESSA, how are Minnesota’s education authorities and professionals adapting to this radical change in the dynamics of education politics?

Tracing Washington’s role in education

Washington has had a meaningful hand in K-12 education policy since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA.

Intended to be reauthorized every five years, ESEA sets the ground rules for federal K-12 education policy and allocation of federal dollars. But ESSA’s forerunner, No Child Left Behind, was on the books for over 13 years, even as it grew increasingly unpopular.

Championed by George W. Bush, No Child Left Behind was centered on the concept of accountability, or making sure that schools receiving federal education dollars are delivering measurable, positive outcomes for students.

No Child Left Behind mandated that schools meet rigorous “yearly progress” benchmarks in subject areas, something determined by a strict schedule of standardized testing. That testing was also intended to help educators locate and address the gap in achievement between white and middle-class students and low-income, minority students.

Congress was supposed to rework No Child Left Behind by 2007, but there was insufficient political will in D.C. to get going on a fix. To avoid a glut of punishments for not meeting NCLB’s increasingly lofty goals — all U.S. students were supposed to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, for example — the Department of Education handed out waivers to many states, including Minnesota.

In 2015, after serious legislative and political wrangling, the U.S. House and Senate passed respective versions of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Former Rep. John Kline, the 2nd District Republican who chaired the House education panel, was part of the group that hammered out the compromise that ended up on Obama’s desk.

ESSA is arguably the most recent major piece of legislation to pass Congress in true civics-textbook fashion, with both sides getting enough of what they wanted to back the bill.

Broadly, the new law significantly rolls back the active federal role that characterized No Child Left Behind. Most importantly, ESSA maintained that annual testing should remain an important part of K-12 education, something seen as a victory for civil rights groups and Democrats that argued testing was a positive for minority students.

But ESSA leaves to the states the responsibility to decide what to do with those test scores — how to interpret them and weigh them. That was considered a victory for local-control advocates in the GOP, as well as teachers’ unions that disliked No Child Left Behind’s punishment system.

Big political changes

In the last year of his presidency, Obama’s Department of Education moved to shore up ESSA, passing a slate of regulations that clarified, from the administration’s point of view, how states were meant to comply with the law, particularly with respect to accountability.

Minnesota and other states spent most of 2016 holding countless forums and discussions with relevant groups to inform their ESSA compliance plans, in order to meet the April deadline for submitting them to Washington.

The election of Trump forced them to reconsider. Instead of forging ahead to complete their plans by April 2017, Minnesota authorities decided to take a moment to see how the situation in D.C. would develop, according to Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Two consequential things happened in the education world in the early days of the Trump administration. The first is that Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as Secretary of Education. DeVos has no formal education background, but made her name as a philanthropist supporting conservative education causes.

She is a vocal supporter of transferring authority in education policy to states and school districts, even saying once that “it would be fine with me to have worked myself out of a job.”

Some, however, believe DeVos would be happy to pull whatever levers are at her disposal, including ESSA, to advance her education priorities.

In a speech in March, DeVos suggested that the federal Department of Education could use ESSA implementation as an opportunity to “encourage” states to adopt stronger “school choice” measures, such as vouchers that fund students’ education at private schools with public money.

DeVos’ statement ultimately got walked back, but others heard the message clearly. “Everybody likes to have some sort of influence and control,” Cassellius said. “When it comes to choice, you could see them bend and twist the law to compel states to enact the kind of reforms they perceive are their priorities.”

Concern grew about DeVos’ leadership at the Department of Education in March, when House and Senate Republicans voted to strike down the ESSA regulations Obama finalized under the authority of the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to void certain executive regulations within 60 days.

Overturning those regulations, says Michael Petrilli, an expert at the Fordham Institute education think tank, means that states must comply with ESSA as passed by Congress. Petrilli believed some of the Obama regulations overreach from the feds, but he disagreed with Republicans’ approach in getting rid of them.

“The regulations changed the law by a matter of degrees,” Petrilli said. Republicans, he added, “could have let DeVos take a targeted approach. Instead, they took a bulldozer to all of them.”

Overturning the regulations gives DeVos’ Department of Education the freest possible hand in deciding whether states’ ESSA plans are acceptable — something that troubles many advocates. Democrats in Congress said the move throws the education system into “chaos” and gives DeVos a “blank check.”

States have greater flexibility, and will be trying new and different things, said Chad Aldeman, who is evaluating states’ ESSA plans for Bellwether Education, a nonprofit education policy firm.

Aldeman says states are advancing plans with “more variance… they have quite a bit more flexibility about what they want to do.” But he says that could produce uneven outcomes. “My hypothesis when ESSA was signed,” he said, “is you have some states do good things with flexibility and have a lot of states not do a whole lot. That’s what I’m seeing so far.”

Compounding that issue is the general understanding among experts that the Trump administration is unlikely to reject states’ ESSA plans.

According to Andrea Roethke, managing director at Ed Allies, a Minnesota education reform group, even if the Minnesota plan “doesn’t quite meet the spirit or letter of the law, there’s a sense that the feds aren’t going to be looking all that closely and will rubber stamp things unless they’re egregiously out of line.”

Major teacher's unions, like the American Federation of Teachers, are particularly concerned that DeVos is giving states the option to use a new template for their ESSA plans — made possible by Congress' vote to strike the Obama regulations — that gives them "greater flexibility."

In a March press release, AFT slammed DeVos' decision, saying her template would allow state authorities to bypass important parts of the process, like seeking input from educators and parents. The union called the move "disturbing and disruptive."

What it means for Minnesota

Because of ESSA and the climate in Washington, Minnesota education authorities have more leeway and authority than they have had in decades to design an education system with relatively little involvement from the feds.

The process of discussing the plan continues, and MDE will release a final draft in August before sending it to D.C. in September. Some in the state legislature are trying to approve language that would require MDE’s plan to be ratified by state lawmakers before being implemented, but it’s unclear if that will happen. 

(On Wednesday, MDE released some preliminary elements of the ESSA plan, including details about testing frequency, indicators for identifying troubled schools, and ways MDE plans to hold schools accountable.)

Right now, plenty of discussion centers around the accountability issue, and state officials, teachers, and parents are figuring out the ways Minnesota will show Washington that it is ensuring that schools meet their obligations.

According to Madaline Edison, a Minneapolis teacher who is the state director of Educators for Excellence, a teachers’ advocacy group, there’s broad agreement in the state that accountability plans should take into account growth — or, how well students perform over time — as much as it does proficiency, or a student’s performance at one given moment. (Discerning the difference between these two concepts proved difficult for DeVos, as questioning from Sen. Al Franken showed during the secretary’s confirmation hearing.)

Edison has attended many official meetings to discuss the ESSA plan, and she says that the most contentious disagreement focuses around wonky topics — like what kind of model should be used to measure a student’s academic growth. But she adds that on the big questions, “how do we hold our schools accountable, how do we make it transparent for families, how do we fund ourselves — at least at these tables there seems to be a lot of consensus.”

Roethke says that growth will be more heavily weighted than before, but it’s unclear whether it’ll be considered more important than proficiency. But she adds that there are big-picture concerns around accountability:  “There’s a resistance to do anything that could potentially make any school look negative. People are worried that if you have an accountability system that sheds light on kids not doing well at a particular school it’s, oh, we’re shaming schools and making teachers look bad.”

But under ESSA, states have a lot of flexibility to bring in so-called non-academic metrics — basically, metrics that fall beyond the realm of test scores — in assessing how schools are doing.

Maryland, for example, is considering a plan that would make test scores constitute no more than half of a school’s rating, and would elevate alternative indicators like class size, college readiness, and results of student surveys.

There’s possibility for other indicators in Minnesota, but experts say the state's toolkit is limited, for now. “Part of the challenge in Minnesota,” Edison says, “is we don’t actually keep a lot of the data that other states do.” For example, she says Minnesota hasn’t figured out a great way to reliably conduct student satisfaction surveys.

Edison says that student attendance rates are probably the only reliable indicator that Minnesota could bring in for its assessment of schools, at least in the short term. MDE’s Cassellius said that state will look to add on more indicators as better data becomes available.

The plan that MDE sends to Washington will be just the beginning. For the foreseeable future, Minnesota education authorities will need to step up where the federal government has stepped down.

“We’re all wondering, what’s our role in making sure that students get the education they deserve now that we can’t count on the federal government to provide anymore,” Edison says. “We’re the backstop for accountability.”

If people realize the stakes, they’re also aware of the limitations of what ESSA can accomplish.

“I think accountability can help to drive improvement but it’s not the answer,” Cassellius said. “I don’t know if you can legislate that, necessarily. They’ve been trying it for 20 years.”

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