Republicans to education secretary: Give states more control

Education Secretary John King on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 25, 2016.
Education Secretary John King on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 25, 2016. AP

Senate Republicans on Wednesday strongly criticized Education Secretary John King, saying he’d failed to follow the intent of the act that replaced No Child Left Behind, which was designed to give states more control over measuring school performance.

“The words we used were carefully and deliberately chosen,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the lead sponsor of the Every Student Succeeds Act. “We meant for the words to mean what they say – nothing more, nothing less. . . . Any regulation has to stay within those words. The law did not envision or invite the secretary to legislate more requirements.”

The eight Republican members who attended the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing chastised King, saying he’d failed to follow numerous provisions, including mandates to reduce the size of the Department of Education, allow states to set rules for measuring performance and avoid complex reporting requirements for academic achievement.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said her colleagues who had written the new education act “were careful in drafting the bill, and that’s why there is this frustration that many of us are feeling.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act replaced its unpopular predecessor last December. The new law focuses less on standardized testing requirements and transfers federal control of school accountability to the states.

The bill easily passed, by 85-12 in the Senate and 359-64 in the House of Representatives.

But in recent months, the committee’s Republicans have become increasingly critical of the Department of Education’s proposed requirements for enforcing the law.

In Wednesday’s hearing, Alexander challenged King on his plan to measure school performance across the country with a cumulative rating system for local schools.

But King stressed that parents and teachers should know where their schools stand.

“The key is that parents, educators, communities have clear information about the performance of schools,” King said. “States could take a variety of approaches to a single, summative rating. They could use an A through F system if they so chose. They could use a numerical index if they so chose. Or they could use a categorical system, which actually is required in the statute.”

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., further lamented the federal control that King’s proposals would place over local schools.

“Why does the federal Department of Education not trust local schools to solve problems in their own school systems?” Burr pointedly asked King.

King said his department’s proposed regulations were intended to preserve state flexibility, though the federal government still had some role to play in determining and measuring education standards, limited as it might now be.

“I agree that one of the problems with No Child Left Behind was an overly restrictive set of responses to struggles in schools,” King said. “At the same time, we have to make sure that states and districts pay attention when their students of color, their low-income students or their English learners or their students with disabilities are not performing.”

At the close of the hearing, Alexander said committee Republicans would vigorously follow the department’s moves on the education act.

Despite the chastisements, Alexander said he was rooting for King and hoped the public would be as supportive of the law at the end of this year as it was last December.

“If we can end the year with that same sort of feeling, why, you will have done a really good job, and so will the president and so will we; and we can step back and let the teachers and the school boards and the states have this new era of innovation.”

John Tompkins: 202-383-6041