House Hearing on ESSA Implementation

Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Hearing

 “Next Steps for K-12 Education: Implementing the Promise to Restore State and Local Control”


The Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a hearing focused on how to implement the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on February 10, 2016. Witnesses discussed the ways that flexibility allows states to meet the particular needs of students and how the federal role should be confined to holding states accountable when not doing so. As for implementation, the witnesses agreed that it would be most beneficial if the Department of Education issued regulations and guidance on the ESSA implementation timeline, clarified definitions within the law, and provided specifications regarding counting all subgroups.

The main themes throughout the question and answer portion was how ESSA’s flexibility will help states create customized accountability systems and whether the increased flexibility would hinder certain subgroups of students. Republicans like Subcommittee Chairman Rokita (R-IN), Committee Chairman Kline (R-MN), and Rep. Russell (R-OK), championed the devolution of power to states and districts, providing locals with greater authority and flexibility over education. Democrats on the other hand, including Ranking Member Fudge (D-OH), Rep. Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Polis (D-IN) expressed deep concerns that flexibility could allow states to skirt their responsibilities to underserved, underrepresented, and disadvantaged students. All agreed that they looked forward to moving out of the NCLB era and into ESSA implementation.


Witness List

  • Ms. Joy Hofmeister, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Oklahoma State Department of Education. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Dr. Paul “Vic” Wilson, Superintendent. Hartselle City Schools. Hartselle, Alabama
  • Ms. Selene A. Almazan, Esq., Legal Director, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., Towson, Maryland
  • Mr. Kent D. Talbert, Attorney at Law, Law Office of Kent D. Talbert, PLLC, Washington, D.C.


Summary of Opening Statements

In his brief opening statements, Chairman Rokita described that the top down approach from Washington to the states has “sparked bipartisan opposition and harmed education reform efforts.” He explained that the passage of ESSA “puts states and school districts back in charge of education, and includes more than 50 pages of provisions to keep the Department of Education in check.” Rokita said that moving forward with this new law, it is the job of the Department to uphold the letter and spirit of the law and the job of Congress to hold the Department accountable for lawful implementation of ESSA.

Ranking Member Fudge pointed out that ESSA is still a civil liberties law and is meant to protect the right to education for all students, despite their backgrounds. She emphasized that ESSA needs to be implemented in a way that meets the needs of the nation’s most vulnerable students and said she plans to work with the Administration and the public to ensure civil liberties are protected. As for what the Department of Education needs to provide, she said the education community has asked for “more clarity about certain terms in ESSA as well as a defined timeline for implementation.”


Summary of Witness Statements

Hofmeister and Wilson’s testimonies were very similar ––both looked forward to implementing the new education law with the much-needed flexibility that has been lacking over the years. Hofmeister said ESSA’s flexibility will allow Oklahoma to carry out goals such as providing access to high quality education, rigorous pathways to early education, closing opportunity gaps, and expanding post-secondary workforce opportunities in a customized way that meets the needs of Oklahoma’s students—not in the previous one-size-fits-all way. Wilson echoed Hofmeister, saying “what works in some states won’t work in others, but ESSA gives states the opportunity to determine that.” He went on to say that the ability to network with school leaders and solve individual state problems without prescribed mandates will benefit students. He concluded by saying: “When it comes to ESSA regulations, less is more”.

Almazan has spent her career working to protect the civil liberties of students with disabilities, black and Hispanic, and other underserved or minority students. She said ESSA protects these liberties by requiring strict action when subgroups of students consistently underperform and requiring a strict 1% cap on disabled students’ exclusion from assessments. However, she expressed concern that the statutory language itself is not enough and asked that the Department of Education implement regulations that protect civil liberties and clarify and establish regulatory parameters around the 95% assessment participation provisions. Without these clarifications, she fells that the Department would not be doing what was necessary to carry out the intent of ESSA.

Talbert’s testimony was very technical on ESSA implementation. He explained that it is the Department’s job to implement ESSA, but stressed that it must be done in a manner that remains within the scope of the law. If the Department were to issue regulations that are not in line with the text and scope of he law, Talbert warned, it opens itself to lawsuits that could lead to a court setting aside or ruling against particular regulations.  While ESSA provides the Department with authority to regulate ESSA, he pointed out that the law expressly prohibits the Secretary from mandating, coercing, or requiring States to adopt standards and assessments based on particular standards.


Q&A: The pros and cons of state flexibility

The predominant theme throughout the question and answer portion of the hearing was the potential benefits and harms resulting from increased flexibility under ESSA.  Reps. Scott (D-VA), Fudge (D-OH), Polis (D-IN), and Bonamici (D-OR) all asked about the states, like Oklahoma, that are admittedly ignoring certain subgroups and what authority the federal government had to ensure that would not happen. In particular, they wanted to know what the federal role was in preventing many students in super subgroups from being swept under the rug. Hofmeister addressed this by saying the state needs to work with the people closest to the issues (local districts and schools) to shrink and remediate the amount of super subgroups that are masked in assessments. She explained that using evidence based approaches, working with local leaders, and providing professional development will help remedy these issues. Hofmeister also suggested would be to provide best practices.

Concerned with how flexibility will improve education, Reps. Carter (R-GA), Thompson (R-PA), and Russell (D-OK) all mentioned that flexibility is actually a great benefit. Rep. Carter asked if there were concerns with such a large devolution of power, to which Hofmeister, Wilson, and Talbert said no. They explained that the power to customize education should be at the state level, which can help kids get where they need to go. As long as the states are still being held accountable for unacceptable outcomes, flexibility is beneficial. Rep. Russell highlighted Oklahoma as a state that has high graduation rates and low unemployment rates, saying: “Just because there are perceptions of what people think high quality education should be, the state has shown it has addressed the issues people perceive to be the biggest problem in letting states take control of education.” Rep. Thompson mentioned that the biggest benefit flexibility has given his state is the ability to expand Career and Technical preparation, giving the states, districts, and schools incredible amounts of flexibility to partner with other stakeholders to improve the local workforce.

Although no additional hearings have been officially confirmed, Acting Education Secretary King is expected to testify at the following hearings:

  • 2/24: House Education and the Workforce: FY 2017 Education Budget
  • 2/25: House Education and the Workforce: ESSA implementation
  • 3/8: Senate HELP, ESSA implementation
  • 3/10: Senate Labor-HHS-Education: FY 17 Education Budget
  • 3/22: House Labor-HHS-Education: FY 17 Education Budget

Source: Bernstein Strategy Group