Early Administration Moves on Education: Disheartening, Disconcerting and Downright Disturbing

Tanya Clay House

Though hailed as a bipartisan “Christmas Miracle” when it was signed into law in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was not an ideal bill—by far. It was not the bill most in the civil rights community wanted, nor was it the bill that many of us at the U.S. Department of Education wanted. When it was enacted, however, our charge at the Department was to ensure the states and school districts were provided with clear rules and guidance to assist them in the implementation of this long-awaited law.

And we delivered.

Our efforts involved more than a year of impassioned work from dedicated political and career staff of every stripe to fulfill this critical mandate to assist states and districts. We lost many a night’s sleep and spent entirely too much time away from our families to produce ESSA regulations. So it was disheartening, to say the least, that 66 days in office, Trump summarily eliminated this momentous rule and further bootstrapped the Education Department from even using the rules as a foundation to make some compromises. There may be many reasons for doing so, none of which sufficiently explain this insensitivity and unfettered hostility toward the responsibility of ensuring equality of educational opportunity for traditionally disadvantaged students, particularly students of color and those with disabilities. With a stroke of his pen, the president dismissed more than a year of aggressive detailed analysis, deliberation, and consultation with diverse stakeholders.

This did not have to happen. The administration did not have to support the Congressional Review Act (CRA), a rarely used law that empowers a new president and Congress to spike regulations issued in the last 60 days of the previous administration. A perfectly reasonable option would have been to simply place the rule on hold, subject to review by current administration officials. They chose not to do this. 

What does this all mean for public school students?  A lot. Even though a new state template was released just days before Trump eliminated the accountability rules, this new template fails to properly ensure that states will robustly implement ESSA. Let’s be clear, the signing of the CRA does not affect state and district statutory obligations within ESSA. However, DeVos and Trump’s actions take us farther away from the original intent of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 during the civil rights movement.

The elimination of the rules removes scrutiny and permits states to not effectively account for the progress of minority and low-income students. This means that states may choose not to provide parents and community stakeholders with an easy-to-understand rating of schools that accurately reflects the performance of subgroups. Other challenges include the elimination of specificity on how to best account for consistently underperforming student subgroups. For example, without the rule, there is:

  • No requirement that schools with a consistently underperforming subgroup be rated lower than it would have otherwise received without the underperforming subgroup
  • No specific n-size (or minimum number of students needed to form a student subgroup); this means states will have unlimited discretion regarding the number of students within a subgroup that is used in setting up its accountability plan. In other words, the progress of African American girls and boys, for example, could be masked in schools with large n-sizes.
  • No requirement that subgroups cannot be combined with other subgroups to effectively mask the progress of a specific group of students 

ESSA requires that states consider other indicators within their school accountability plan, such as school quality. However, the elimination of rules is sending a message to African American parents in particular—whose children are disproportionately disciplined, suspended and expelled from school—that this administration is not willing to take responsibility to eliminate such disparities and end their effect on achievement gaps in schools. Furthermore, it leaves a gap in how states should properly fulfill ESSA requirements of how to deal with the inequitable distribution of ineffective, inexperienced and out-of-field teachers, including the consideration of such staffing and resource inequities in schools in the development of school improvement plans. 

Education is a civil right and it remains the responsibility of federal, state and local administrators and staff to implement ESSA in a manner that reflects this right. Under former Secretary John King, high school graduation rates rose to an all-time high of 84 percent, and this was a consequence of the importance the administration placed on its oversight responsibilities to ensure states and districts were serving all students. The combination of eliminating the ESSA Title I Accountability, State Plan and Data rules; refusing to administer and eliminating the Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities Diversity Grants; withdrawing the transgender guidance; and proposing $3 billion of cuts to public education—just to name a few—is disheartening, disconcerting and downright disturbing to anyone who understands the history of education in America and its power to uplift all communities. It is my hope that this hostility to public education, civil rights protections and accountability is short-lived. It is my fervent wish that this hostility is outlived by the resilience and commitment of dedicated parents, educators, administrators and students who believe in the promise of equitable educational opportunities that public schools should and can provide when properly supported by all levels of government.

Tanya Clay House is a senior consultant at the Schott Foundation. She previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for P-12 Education at the U.S. Department of Education.