Betsy DeVos Is Wrong: ESSA Doesn’t End Federalized Common Core

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Jane Robbins Senior Fellow, American Principles in Action
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As I wrote recently, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is shaping up to be somewhat of a renegade in the Trump administration. In addition to her reported disagreement with the President and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on rescinding Obama’s legally questionable transgender guidance to schools, DeVos seems at odds with Trump on the gist of his campaign promises about education.

Joy Pullmann brings her usual insight and clarity to the issue of how DeVos can implement the central plank of her boss’s education platform: to stop Common Core. Among Pullmann’s suggestions are that DeVos should populate the U.S. Department of Education (USED) with right-thinking people who know the truth about federal education policy (rather than the Pence/Jeb Bush retreads who’ve come on board so far); cease federal micromanaging of state testing; and protect the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) test from corruption.

But what DeVos said in a recent radio interview indicates a deeper problem. Speaking with Frank Beckmann on Detroit’s WJR News Talk 760 AM, DeVos said that the “notion of a Common Core” has already been disposed of by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). She also claimed that ESSA “encourages states to set forth their own levels of achievement expectation.” So why would she listen to any ideas about how to liberate states from Common Core when she thinks that’s already been done?

Over at Truth in American Education, Shane Vander Hart summarizes the ways in which ESSA’s effect on Common Core and related testing is in fact the opposite of what DeVos claimed. ESSA requires the states to submit, for USED approval, state plans that include “challenging” academic standards, which elsewhere are described as “college- and career-ready” – code language for Common Core. The state plans must be aligned with 11 different federal statutes, including those that have their own standards requirements (such as the Head Start statute, which requires “Baby Common Core” for early-childhood education).

“So,” writes Vander Hart, “Congress did not get rid of the notion of Common Core, they codified it and pat themselves on the back while doing it.”

Once they had ESSA safely in the can, Obama administration officials Arne Duncan and Peter Cunningham took victory laps (here and here) to celebrate how they snookered the GOP members of Congress to get what the Obama administration wanted in the education bill. Or in some cases, such as with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), perhaps they joined forces to snooker the American people.

In any event, DeVos seems to have bought into the fallacy that ESSA takes care of the Common Core/local control problem, so that she needn’t worry about it. Where could she have gotten such an idea? Perhaps from congressional “Republicans” such as Alexander and Paul Ryan. Or perhaps from the slew of new USED staffers formerly affiliated with Mike Pence (who protected Common Core in Indiana) or Jeb Bush (who was ejected from the GOP presidential race because of his Common Core support).

Of course, DeVos’s premature declaration of victory on Common Core doesn’t even make sense. If the goal had already been achieved, why did candidate Trump feature his Common Core-elimination promise to such acclaim on the campaign trail? And why did DeVos herself mimic his promise after her nomination?

All very puzzling and frustrating. Even more so in light of another statement she made in the radio interview: that approval of state education plans is a “good and important role for the federal government.”

According to whom, exactly? The concept of federal oversight is certainly a fundamental principle of ESSA, but it’s inconsistent with another document that also assembles certain fundamental principles we used to consider important: the Constitution. That document assigns certain enumerated powers to the federal government, and the careful reader seeks in vain any mention of overseeing the education policies of the sovereign states.

So apparently DeVos either 1) hasn’t read ESSA; 2) has read ESSA but doesn’t understand it; or 3) has read and understands ESSA but is dissembling about its contents. These three possibilities also exist regarding her familiarity with the Constitution. As Pullmann laid out, there are multiple steps DeVos could take to help Trump solve the problem he addressed in practically every speech to his cheering supporters. But she can’t solve the problem if she denies it exists.

One hopes the President is aware of the disconnect between what he promised and what DeVos is now claiming – and that he steps in to fix it.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow at American Principles Project.