By John Rosales

During a hearty discussion exploring state and local plans for the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congressional members of the Committee on Education and the Workforce acknowledged that one vital component was missing from Tuesday’s hearing: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos or any department representative for that matter.

“A lot of us feel frustration that the secretary of education has not appeared before this committee,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). “We need direction from the head of the department on where the law is going.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) expressed a similar sentiment voiced by several additional committee members.

“It would be helpful to hear from the secretary as we work on implementation issues,” she said

In her opening statement, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), committee chairwoman, said she was “disappointed” that committee members would not have the opportunity to discuss ESSA with an education department representative, but reminded those gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building that ESSA “has stripped away powers of the Department of Education, such as the ability of the secretary of education to legislate through executive fiat, or the ability of the Department’s bureaucrats to substitute their judgment for states’.”

“History made it clear,” Foxx continued, “that a top down approach to K-12 education did not serve students, teachers, parents, or the states well.”

ESSA includes “unprecedented restrictions on the Department of Education’s authority to take back the state and local flexibility guaranteed by the law,” she added.

Among the four witnesses testifying at the hearing, titled “ESSA Implementation: Exploring State and Local Reform Efforts,” only one represented the government: Jacqueline Nowicki, a director with the Government Accountability Office.

“Education officials said their next steps in implementing ESSA are to review and approve state plans and to continue to provide technical assistance to states,” Nowicki said.

As of May, 16 states and the District of Columbia had submitted their plans to the education department for review. The remaining plans are due by September 18, according to the education department.

“Education officials told us they are determining whether there is a need for additional guidance to states on aspects of ESSA implementation,” Nowicki said. “They said that they are developing monitoring protocols for in-depth reviews of states’ ESSA-related activities and will pilot them in early 2018.”

Superintendent Gail Pletnick of the Dysart Unified School District in Arizona told committee members how critical it is that “we continue to work together to ensure the underserved populations in our schools truly benefit from the educational promise that ESSA was designed to deliver.”

In Arizona, Pletnick said committees and advisory groups were established to provide input at various stages of plan with the intent of consolidating the data.

“The flexibility of ESSA resulted in a more inclusive process for identifying educational goals at the state level and for building the evaluation systems to measure progress,” she said. “I believe this more inclusive approach will enhance transparency at the state and federal levels.”

In Mississippi, State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said ESSA provides the opportunity to create a plan specifically designed for Mississippi students.

“We approached this process as an opportunity to build upon the goals and strategies that are embedded in the Mississippi State Board of Education’s Strategic Plan,” she said. “The law provides guardrails to ensure our work is appropriately targeted toward improving educational opportunities and outcomes for all students at all schools.”

In a letter to the committee, NEA Director of Government Relations Marc Egan urged members “to continue to focus on implementation and use its oversight role to ensure equity and opportunity for all students, no matter what zip code they live in.”

Egan highlighted several state affiliates for their on-going groundbreaking work in the implementation of ESSA, including the Anchorage Education Association for sponsoring a statewide ESSA summit that included educators, parents, students and others; and the Louisiana Association of Educators, which convened a statewide community conversation that addressed parental involvement, building community relationships, rating school quality, funding, resource equity, teacher preparation, test reduction, and improving struggling schools.

The Maryland State Education Association was also mentioned in the letter for helping lead a broad, bipartisan support effort among educators, parents, and other stakeholders in support of the Protect Our Schools Act, which helped close opportunity gaps, reduce testing, and prevent school privatization across the state.

At the hearing, Phillip Lovell of the Alliance for Excellent Education, referred to ESSA as a civil rights law with equity-focused requirements designed to prepare all students for postsecondary education and the workforce.

“ESSA provides states with significant flexibility when it comes to how they achieve equity and excellence,” said Lovell, vice president of policy and government relations.