Congress Overturns Obama Administration ESSA Accountability Rules

Published March 30, 2017

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015, reauthorizing the federal government’s oversight of public education. In late November 2016, the administration released final ESSA regulations on how states should hold schools accountable, develop state plans, and report data.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 234–190 in early February 2017 to reverse the accountability provisions, and the U.S. Senate followed suit in March with a 50–49 vote.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who led the effort to overturn the accountability rules, said before the vote, “People had grown fed up with Washington telling teachers and schools, and superintendents, and states so much about what to do about our children in 100,000 public schools. This resolution restores flexibility. This resolution preserves local decision-making. This resolution scuttles new and burdensome reporting requirements. This resolution ensures strong accountability for our schools, but it is state accountability.”

Congress also voted to reverse an Obama administration mandate regulating teacher-preparation programs. Both resolutions were accomplished through the Congressional Review Act, which enables Congress to repeal federal regulations within 60 days of their being issued, by a simple majority vote. President Donald Trump must sign the resolution for it to take effect. Trump has said he would do so.    

‘Restores Constitutional Protections’

Mary Byrne, a former college professor and member of the Missouri Coalition Against Common

Core, says the reversal of the ESSA rules puts more power in the hands of parents.

“Congress’ rollback of ESSA regulations restores the constitutional protections of a representative government to parents who are not professionals in the education lobby but experts in their own children,” Byrne said. “Local school boards of school districts within a state are comprised of members elected from their community to make decisions tailored to the needs of that community. The U.S. Department of Education touts that ‘the proposed regulations themselves were informed by extensive input from a diverse group of stakeholders.’ However, the composition of the regulations committee was not as extensive as a plain reading of that statement might imply.”

Byrne says ESSA is flawed.

“Rollback of regulations is not enough to fully restore constitutional government,” Byrne said. “The rollback does not eliminate badly conceived sections of ESSA. Several sections of the statute are inconsistent with each other and with the claim that ESSA restores state and parent authority over education.”  

DC Power Struggle

Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says the rule reversal is more about precedent than immediate policy change.

“I don’t think it will have that profound of an effect in the short term,” Eden said. “Most states are already well into the process of crafting their accountability systems. They’ve been crafting them with these regulations in place and in mind.

“I think that in a way, this is much more about Washington, DC and the way Washington works than it is about the actual effect it will have on schools in the short term,” Eden said. “A lot of this has to do with separation of powers and struggles between the branches, because Congress passed ESSA very much with the intent of limiting the role of Washington and limiting the role of the feds in education.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.