Senate Ed. Committee Hearing on ESSA: Perspectives from Education Leaders

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee held a hearing on February 23, 2016 to discuss implementation of the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Seven witnesses delivered testimony, including Utah Governor Gary Herbert, two superintendents, the president of the AFT and the vice president of NEA, and leaders of two think tank groups. All of the witnesses welcomed ESSA’s passage into law as an opportunity for states to improve education through increased flexibility in decision-making. Governor Herbert and the superintendents expressed eagerness to take up the task of improving education while the presidents of the teacher unions mentioned the importance of teacher involvement in accountability and evaluations when implementing ESSA. All of the Senators expressed the importance of getting ESSA implementation right and advised states to seize the unique opportunity to revamp education and provide all students with access to high quality teaching and learning.

Witness List

  1. Governor Gary R. Herbert, Governor of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
  2. Dr. Tony Evers, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Madison, WI
  3. Dr. David R. Schuler, Superintendent of Schools, Township High School District #214, Arlington Heights, IL
  4. Ms. Katy Haycock, President, The Education Trust, Washington, DC
  5. Ms. Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, (AFT) Washington, DC
  6. Ms. Delia Pompa, Senior Fellow of Education Policy, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, DC
  7. Ms. Becky Pringle, Vice President, National Education Association (NEA), Washington, DC


Opening Statements

Chairman Alexander (R-TN) opened by stating that ESSA was the largest devolution of federal power to the states in 25 years and that the law replaces a top down approach and puts states, school districts, teachers and parents back in control of education, where it belongs. As for the federal role in ESSA implementation, he said it is to “inform decision making and nothing more.” Alexander said education needs to be on the front burner and politics needs to be on the back burner, stating: “We need to work together to transition to the new law and implement it according to the intent of Congress.”

Ranking Member Murray (D-WA), in her opening remarks, described the trouble her state of Washington had under NCLB waivers and discussed the benefits the states will see now that there is a new, workable education framework. She explained that while ESSA guarantees a lot of state and local flexibility, it also contains federal guardrails that uphold the true intent of the law, to provide all students with a great education. The Department of Education, she explained, will help carry out ESSA in a way that clarifies what stakeholders need guidance on most: assessments and accountability.


Summary of Witness Testimony

Utah Governor Herbert began his testimony by explaining that states must now make the promise of ESSA a reality given their new authority. As state leaders, all governors see ESSA as an opportunity to set high expectations while allowing flexibility in meeting high standards. Governor Herbert encouraged Congress to look to states for strong partnerships when implementing ESSA and said that “state driven solutions will be the key to improving academic success for all low-income students, raising graduation rates, cutting chronic absenteeism in half, and expanding pre-k for all students.” He referred to ESSA as a tool for all Governors to use in order to improve the academic systems of the future. In his written testimony, the Governor called for state input along with increased collaboration when implementing ESSA, saying: “Guidance should be the primary tool the federal government uses to inform state efforts to implement ESSA.”

Superintendents Schuler and Evers focused their testimony on transitioning from “NCLB prescribed to ESSA informed.” Schuler explained that because ESSA is “tight on goals and loose on means” states and locals can now hone in on addressing student needs. As for states, he said they are now able to examine schools on a holistic level and create opportunities for improvement. Evers said that ESSA’s flexibility also creates permanent avenues for many stakeholders to weigh in on important factors in education. On accountability, he said: “All state chiefs are dedicated to maintaining a strong framework” but the federal role is to provide guidance while allowing the states and locals to achieve those high goals.

The leaders of the teachers unions focused on how ESSA implementation will benefit educators and emphasized the importance of having teacher input when creating accountability and evaluation systems. President of AFT Weingarten said: “The most important thing states can do is to focus on the new accountability systems, those that are aligned with what kids need to be able to do and helps kids get there, not the test and punish methods.” In her written testimony Weingarten makes the case for states to move away from high stakes testing: “By working with and listening to educators, parents, school administrators and other stakeholders, you have made it possible for states to move away from high-stakes testing and punitive sanctions that have left students alternately stressed or bored, frustrated parents, and deprofessionalized and demoralized teachers.” Weingarten also urged states to: “hold off on continuing to use the current, flawed high-stakes testing regime. As states develop the timelines and strategies for the interim period between passage of the new law and its full implementation—which is over 18 months—the AFT renews its call for a moratorium on the consequences of high-stakes testing. A reset means a reset.”  Pringle continued in a similar vein, saying one of the top three things NEA members said they wanted in a new law was “reducing the volume and over-reliance on standardized testing.” As for ESSA regulations, both said that states need to do their jobs and provide access to high-quality education for all students––and be held accountable when not doing so. However, Weingarten said the government should not regulate so heavily that ESSA turns into another NCLB nightmare.

Haycock and Pampa’s remarks centered on ESSA’s supports for underserved students, including English Learners, impoverished students, and struggling students. Haycock said, “Good policy creates a sense of urgency to solve problems that have persisted for decades” and that ESSA contains very important language to speed up the process of increasing support for struggling students. Pampa added that ESSA includes policies that support English Learners and policies that prioritize family and parent engagement. She explained that the regulatory process must maintain equity and support for these students while Haycock added that the implementation process must be responsive to the needs of local communities. Haycock concluded by saying: “However that does not mean unchecked control”–– which is why the strong partnership between states and the Department of education is so crucial.


Summary of Question and Answer Portion

Chairman Alexander spent ample time asking the panelists about how states are planning to implement ESSA and whether the timeline for implementation is long enough to “get it right.” Governor Herbert said that implementation would come down to the laws “not putting people in silos” and explained that intense collaboration between multiple stakeholders, including private companies, will be the key to implementing ESSA successfully. Ranking Member Murray also asked about how stakeholders will provide meaningful input and Evers replied that giving broad groups a voice in the decision-making creates new opportunities to improve education.

Some Senators, such as Murray, Warren (D-MA), and Baldwin (D-WI), were concerned with how the devolution of power will negatively impact students. Haycock said that in not clearly regulating and enforcing the laws, the pressure to do the right thing by students is often diminished. Accountability can be upheld by strict enforcement. Pringle responded by saying that “it is a real problem when students do not have clean bathrooms to use or when you have technology schools without internet.” She said enforcing the provisions of ESSA that address basic liberties is critical to improving all aspects of education. Senator Warren noted that ESSA provides the baseline for what states need to be doing but said better data points and reporting will serve as measures of how schools are really doing.

Other Senators took their time to express priorities they would like to see implemented in the law: Senator Cassidy (R-LA) spoke about the need to address Dyslexia, Senator Franken (D-MN) talked about enhancing mental health services in schools, and Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) said he would like to see “curriculum expansion, middle school accountability, and real innovation by the states as ESSA is implemented.” Senator Alexander concluded the hearing by urging the panelists to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunity to improve education and said he looked forward to moving ESSA from legislation to full implementation.


Source: Bernstein Strategy Group

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