King Testifies at House Education and Workforce Hearing on ESSA Implementation

Concluding an immensely busy week on the Hill, Acting Secretary King testified on the morning of February 25, 2016 before the House Education and Workforce on ESSA implementation and on that afternoon before the Senate HELP Committee for his confirmation hearing. The House ESSA hearing focused on upholding the letter and intent of the law and Congress’ priorities for implementation. During both hearings, Republicans made very clear that it is essential that the Department’s implementation of ESSA maintains state and local flexibility while the Democrats focused on upholding the civil rights aspects of the law. The Senate was very welcoming to Acting Secretary King during the confirmation hearing and spent the majority of their time explaining the priorities each member would like him to work on during his tenure, including ESSA implementation, teacher shortages, innovation at the state and local level and protecting student data privacy.


Witness List

  • Dr. John B. King, Acting Secretary, U.S. Department of Education


Opening Statements for House ESSA Implementation Hearing

Chairman Kline (R-MN) opened the ESSA implementation hearing by explaining how the top down approach of NCLB did not work, increasing teacher, parent, and student frustration while decreasing achievement. He explained that Washington’s convoluted waiver system subjected schools to onerous regulations and mandates and said Congress will ensure ESSA implementation steers clear of that. Kline concluded by stating that Congress is ready to assist the Secretary in upholding the letter and intent of the law, which shifts focus to state and local leaders and includes unprecedented checks on the Secretary’s power.

Ranking Member Scott (D-VA) opened by remarking that passing legislation is only one step, and raising student achievement rests on successful implementation of ESSA. He said that: “With increased flexibility (for the states and districts) comes great responsibility.” As for the Department’s role, Scott said the federal funds are not blank checks to the states and the Department has the important job of ensuring the guidelines in ESSA are being rigorously enforced. In fact he said, not a single provision in ESSA prevents the Department from regulating ESSA, a fact that Kline and other Republican members strongly disagreed with.


Witness Testimony

Acting Secretary King began his testimony by stating that “passage of this monumental law is only the beginning of the road for enhancing education” and that the responsibility for implementing it rests equally with the states, locals, and the Department of Education. Because ESSA is a civil rights law, the continuing role for the Department is to construct guardrails that protect chronically underserved students and build on the work that is already underway to enhance the nation’s education system. In his written testimony, King states: “Education is, and should remain, primarily a State and local responsibility. What we do at the Federal level is support states and districts to improve opportunity for all students, invest in local innovation, research and scale what works, ensure transparency, and protect our students’ civil rights, providing guardrails to ensure educational opportunity for all children.” King concluded his testimony by explaining that the Department is in the early stages of implementing ESSA and has already heard from 360 stakeholders. It plans to commence a negotiated rulemaking on assessments soon and will issue guidance on areas of the law that need clarification.


Question and Answer Portion of the ESSA Implementation Hearing

Almost every Republican member expressed deep concerns about states and local districts maintaining control of education decision-making when implementing ESSA with as little interference from the Department possible. Chairman Kline harshly criticized former Secretary Arne Duncan for making public comments about the authority of the Department to regulate education and warned King that he intends to uphold the intent of ESSA, which severely reduces the role of the Secretary. Numerous other Republicans, including Reps. Byrne (R-AL), Foxx (R-VA), Bishop (R-UT), all referred back to the various provisions of ESSA that limit the Secretary’s role in implementing the law, quoting one provision directly: “The Secretary shall have no authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce or exercise any direct supervision over state standards.”

Representative Stefanik (R-NY) spent time questioning King about the mistakes he made as Commissioner of Education in New York from 2011-2014, specifically around Common Core standards and evaluations. King responded to Stefanik: “There was, I think, in many states an unfortunate phenomenon of teacher-evaluation work and the work of raising standards being conflated together.” King responded multiple times about the Department’s role in state standards and evaluation by explaining that “the new law is an opportunity for a full reset on teacher evaluations and the new flexibility allows states to strengthen standards and improve evaluation systems.”

As for the issue of testing, Reps. Polis (D-CO), Wilson (D-FL), and Bonamici (D-OR) all asked about reducing the amount of testing and improving the quality of tests administered. Rep. Polis acknowledged that over-testing has been an issue across the country but said that the forthcoming negotiated rulemaking will help address these issues by taking into consideration public input from various stakeholders. Reps. Wilson and Bonamici said that although there is too much testing, the Department needs to ensure that states are not skirting the requirements to test all students, including major subgroups. They questioned King on how the Department plans to ensure appropriate testing of all subgroups. King pointed to the Administration’s recently released testing plan, which emphasizes reduced and improved testing and collaboration between the federal government, states, and locals. He explained that many states have begun to address the issue of over-testing but said ESSA also includes provisions that ensure all students, including subgroups, are tested.

Several questions from both sides of the isle were asked about the Title IV, Part A Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) block grant, which would allow districts to use funds for well-rounded curriculums, safe and healthy programs, and the effective use of technology. Representative Wilson (D-FL) stated that these funds can be used to support drop out prevention and increase access to advanced coursework, which helps kids stay in school. She said however, the biggest challenge is in the high needs schools where the district underinvests in these programs. Chairman of the K-12 subcommittee Rokita (R-IN) and Rep. Allen (R-GA) explained that SSAE eliminates dozens of unnecessary programs and instead supports a wide range of student needs and gives states the flexibility to invest based on the particular needs of their districts and schools. Secretary King agreed that this grant program has tremendous potential to improve education by providing a comprehensive education and safe and healthy schools, but said the distribution scheme is important to ensure the funds have a meaningful impact––something which he is willing to work further with Congress on.

King explained that supporting teachers and principals is one of the Department’s main priorities and said ESSA is filled with provisions that can improve the teaching and principal professions. Representative Davis (D-CA) said that the Department’s important role in supporting teachers and principals through ESSA implementation is to provide guidance and share best practices. She explained that it is particularly important for the Department to help principals scale up great practices that help bring up student achievement and said there is no question these practices should be taking place across the country. King agreed and said that Title II gives states and districts the ability to invest in supports for teachers and principals and mentioned specific programs like the Teach to Lead program, which helps bring together innovative teachers and principals. Representative Takano (D-CA) mentioned the issue of equitable access to high quality teachers and professions. King said the department is “deeply concerned” with this issue and is working on ways to improve access by recruiting and retaining high quality teachers and principals.


Summary of Secretary King’s Confirmation Hearing

Acting Secretary King’s day on Capitol Hill ended with his Senate nomination hearing, which was very positive overall. During the hearing, members welcomed the opportunity to work with King and took the time to explain specific priorities for education they wanted to work with him on over the next year. Chairman Alexander (R-TN) explained that ESSA was a monumental piece of legislation that restored local control and said his priority was to ensure the law is going to be implemented by the Department in a way that maintains state and local control over education. Ranking Member Murray (D-WA) expressed concerns about the severe teacher shortages across the country and said she looked forward to working with King to build on ESSA provisions that help address this epidemic. Senators Isakson (R-GA) and Roberts (R-KS) mentioned the need to reduce testing and reiterated the Department’s limitation on setting academic standards. Senators Enzi (R-WY) and Murkowski (R-AK) brought up issues of protecting student data privacy and the Departments ability to protect sensitive information. King stated that it was a Department priority to adequately protect personally identifiable information at the federal and state level. Other topics that were mentioned as priorities included Senator Whitehouse’s (D-RI) desire for the Department to allow innovation at the local level, Senator Murphy’s (D-CT) concerns about chronically failing schools, and Senator Collins’ (R-ME) concern about the unique challenges rural schools face. The committee will take up King’s nomination on March 9th, but it is unclear when the full Senate will consider and approve the nomination.


Source: Bernstein Strategy Group