Policy

GOP Works to Throw Out Obama Education Rules

congress

As supporters and opponents of President Trump's choice for education secretary decide what the department will look like with Betsy DeVos at the helm, a powerful Congressional committee is pushing forward with a rollback of new rules put in place as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Higher Education Act (HEA). Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives Rules Committee met to consider "congressional disapproval" of two rules, one related to teacher preparation programs and the other related to accountability and state education plans. Both rules were put into place in the final days of the Obama administration under previous Education Secretary John King Jr. to clarify how to implement certain portions of those laws.

Approval of Senate and House Joint Resolution 57 would undo the Department of Education's rule related to accountability and state plans, and H.J. 58 would strip federal oversight from HEA covering teacher preparation programs.

The rules committee acts as a traffic cop for House decision-making. It can do virtually anything while considering a measure coming out of committee — including self-executing amendments that will rewrite a measure, if there's a majority of the House willing to approve the vote. The committee is currently disproportionately Republican.

As previously reported, ESSA transferred more control over defining a high-quality and well-rounded education to states and local education agencies while keeping in place federal oversight for matters of equity. For example, under ESSA states and districts now control their systems of accountability for defining goals and measurements related to marking interim progress on K–12 academic outcomes. The overall goal of the accountability systems, as explained by the Department of Ed, was to gain a more "holistic" view of student and school success.

As part of their responsibility, however, states needed to file plans with the department relating to K–12 performance metrics. The recent rule put out by the department stipulated that every school was to test at least 95 percent of its students through state-defined assessments. The plan would also address how states would deal with schools that fed into the lowest-performing rungs. Those plans, which would consider feedback from myriad stakeholders — teachers, principals, families, students and others — were due later this year. If H.J. 57 is approved by the committee, those aspects of ESSA could be voided if, as is expected, the House follows through on the disapproval.

Accusing the Department of Ed of "micromanaging our nation's schools, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) testified in favor of H.R. 57. "The department's proposed rule related to the law's accountability provision drew immediate concerns from a broad coalition of education stakeholders. The result of the law is less flexibility for state leaders as they develop appropriate accountability systems for their schools. Should this rule go forward, more schools will be identified as failing and in need of intervention," he said.

The same fate awaits a set of regulations put in place in October 2016 related to how states and institutions of higher education were expected to collect and share "more meaningful data" on the quality of their teacher preparation programs. The original rule targeted by H.R. 58 was intended to address a gap identified by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found that some states never assessed the soundness of their teacher training programs, leaving schools, districts and families in the dark about the caliber of the teachers being hired. The GAO report also found that more than half of states said current reporting system data was less than useful and that, across the board, nobody used the data. The rule was intended to address shortcomings in the current system by defining the indicators of quality that a state must use to assess the performance of its teacher prep programs.

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) warned that the rule as written would force "a one-size-fits-all" solution for federal reporting on teacher preparation programs — "and that is not at all what Congress has intended," he insisted. "On that basis alone, the rule should be rejected. But, unfortunately, it gets even worse. The rule also requires states to track teachers across three performance levels, including student learning outcomes and employment outcomes." The result, he suggested would be to "make it more difficult to prepare teachers to succeed and less likely that great teachers will serve in the poor schools."

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who spoke in opposition to the resolution disapprovals, reminded the committee that ESSA had received "strong bi-partisan support" and that the rules were intended to give states direction to how to proceed with the implementation of the education law. "If we repeal the rule back into 'no man's land,' it'll be even worse," he said. "Without this regulation, they won't know what to do."

Committee member Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) thanked Rokita and Guthrie for sponsoring the legislation. "I'm glad you're doing this," he said. "We try to micromanage school districts from Washington, D.C. We don’t do it very well. We've got 50 states ... and who knows how many thousands of school districts out there that are quite capable of managing their own affairs. Now it's time to let them loose and see what they can do on their own. I don’t think they can do much worse."

That perspective was bolstered by Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL). "I rarely found one of these federal regulations that I really thought was moving education forward for the benefit of children," he stated. "That's what it should all be about."

Fellow committee member Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) offered a different take. "It would be believed that all the states are hunky-dory with all of our policies," he said. "But if it had not been for the federal government and their intervention and assistance, we would still — in the minds of some — be better off if we had segregated schools. I'm not going to go back to that period of time."

The committee was expected to vote on the amendments under closed rules, a procedural tool that prohibits changes to the bills up for vote on the House floor unless the committee decides otherwise. In this case, that wasn't expected.

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