Union head sees promise in ESSA, problems in Trump budget

On the one hand, says Lily Eskelen Garcia, local schools and local teachers have a great opportunity.

The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act puts power back into the hands of local leaders. They just have to seize it.

But on the other hand, Garcia says, public schools face a serious threat.

The Trump administration’s budget signals a fundamental shift — away from effective programs that help at-risk students, and into a flawed privatization model.

Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, was in Boise Saturday to speak at the Idaho Education Association’s delegate assembly and annual meeting. In an interview with Idaho Education News, Garcia discussed the shifting terrain of federal education policy.

Life under ESSA: ‘Proceed until apprehended’

Garcia says one of her proudest moments as NEA president was standing behind President Obama in December 2015, as he signed ESSA into law. The successor to the No Child Left Behind law — or, as Garcia puts it, “No Child Left Untested” — promised a move away from unrealistic and federally mandated academic targets.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act could give states the ability to measure — and model — successes from their top-performing school, National Education Association president Lily Eskelen Garcia said in an interview Saturday. (Photos courtesy of Idaho Education Association.)

ESSA is not President Trump’s law, of course. But as ESSA implementation is the union’s top focus, Garcia remains hopeful.

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“The hope that we have is that it is not in the hands of the federal government,” she said.

States still face federal mandates under ESSA — for example, 95 percent of students still must take required standardized tests, and states must develop intervention plans for their 5 percent lowest performing schools. But states also have a lot of latitude.

Garcia is excited that states can devise school accountability “dashboards” that measure performance by looking beyond test scores to incorporate other metrics. And she’s excited that states will at least be required to address equity issues by reporting funding, down to the school level. “It’s the transparency we’ve lacked.”

States are beginning to file their ESSA implementation plans with the U.S. Department of Education; like the majority of states, Idaho plans to file its document in September. The first plans show signs of states embracing their new authority under ESSA, Garcia said — and signs of states reaching out to teachers’ unions and other education groups to develop a consensus. (Last fall, Idaho education groups criticized the State Department of Education, saying they hadn’t been consulted on a draft of the ESSA plan.)

As the NEA advises state unions and local members on ESSA, Garcia goes back to a recurring message. Local schools and local teachers have a chance to embrace the spirit of the new law, by building effective learning communities. They need not wait on Congress, and should not.

“There is incredible power in our own hands, as educators,” she said. “We’re going to say, ‘Proceed until apprehended.’”

A ‘separate and unequal’ school system

Trump hasn’t released a complete budget proposal for 2017-18 — just a “skinny” budget that summarizes his spending priorities. But the summary clearly signals the administration’s intentions, Garcia said.

Trump proposes zeroing out “Title II,” a $2.4 billion program to reduce class sizes and fund teacher training, and a $1.2 billion afterschool and summer education program. Even though the overall Education Department budget would drop by $9 billion, Trump has proposed a $1.4 billion boost in school choice initiatives.

The budget proposal has only intensified the scrutiny of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos — a billionaire and GOP activist, DeVos has used her money and her political influence to push for charter schools and voucher programs in her native Michigan.

Last week, DeVos toured an Ohio public school with another national union leader, American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten. Before the tour, DeVos used a Cleveland Plain Dealer guest opinion to argue that school choice is “about trusting parents to choose the best fit for their child.”

Garcia doesn’t buy it. DeVos supports a “free-for-all” for unregulated private and charter schools — at the expense of public schools that are vital to poorer neighborhoods and inner cities.

“Her choices are false choices,” Garcia said. “It’s a separate and unequal system.”

Garcia doesn’t mince words about education secretaries, past or present. Arne Duncan’s time in charge of the Education Department proved to be a “disaster,” Garcia said, because the Obama appointee saw the federal agency as a micromanaging “super school board.” DeVos, meanwhile, seems willing to abandon the department’s key mission: supporting after-school programs, college Pell Grants and other programs designed to help lower- to middle-class students.

“We’ve got four years to protect and defend our vulnerable students,” Garcia said. “It’s ironic that you have to protect them from the person who is supposed to administer these programs.”