WASHINGTON (CN) – In a congressional hearing Tuesday, Senate Republicans attacked policies by the Aministration’s Department of Education intended to make sure that poor school students receive the federal funds intended for them, with Sen. Lamar Alexander criticizing the policies and Sen. Elizabeth Warren defending them.
Today’s hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions focused on what Alexander, the Republican senior senator from Tennessee, called “disturbing evidence” of efforts to scale back the promise of Every Student Succeeds.
Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in July, the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced many provisions of No Child Left Behind by reauthorizing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The law lets states choose the weight they give federally mandated tests in evaluating their schools, and it gives local and state districts more flexibility in how to use federal grant money.
Though regulators must ensure that states provide both poor and wealthy schools with comparable services, Sen. Alexander said districts are not supposed to include teacher pay when they measure spending for comparability purposes.
Even within the same school district, teachers with seniority, those who are paid more as a result, tend to seek work in middle-class and affluent schools where students are more likely to do homework and attend class regularly. Among districts, the most talented and qualified teachers will tend to work for the districts that pay the highest wages.
As a Tennessee Republican who co-authored Every Student Succeeds, Alexander complained this morning that the Department of Education has proposed a rule that contravenes congressional intent.
In addition to having districts measure state and local spending with specific methodology, Alexander said the new rule proposed by Department of Education Secretary John King requires states to have spending in poorer schools equal at least the average of spending in more wealthy schools.
Alexander predicted the proposed rule would impose harsh new costs on states and would force districts to meticulously detail their spending, a side effect of No Child Left Behind that Congress tried to eliminate in the new law.
“The plain fact is the law specifically says the department on its own cannot do it,” Alexander said. “Mr. Secretary, not only is what you’re doing against the law, the way you’re trying to do it is against another provision in the law.”
Alexander pointed to a specific provision of the law he says prohibits the Department of Education from forcing a specific spending methodology on states.
If the Department of Education violated that provision, Alexander threatened to encourage states to sue.
“And if you try to force states to follow these regulations that ignore the law, I’ll encourage them to request a hearing, which they have the right to do with the department,” Alexander said. “And if they lose, I’ll tell them to take you to court.”
King pushed back at the hearing, saying the proposed rule simply advances “criteria” for states to meet in their own ways, not necessarily with one specific methodology.
“Again, those are criteria by which to evaluate a methodology that would be determined by a district that would ensure that the Title I dollars are in fact supplemental,” King said.
But Alexander didn’t buy King’s claims.
“Dr. King, do you know how ridiculous the statement is you just made?” he asked.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren came to King’s defense later in the hearing, saying the point of Washington intervention is to ensure states use federal dollars to supplement their spending, not to cut corners for poorer districts.
“When the federal government gives the states billions of taxpayer dollars to improve education for our most vulnerable kids, then it’s critical that the Department of Education ensure that those states actually use the money to accomplish those ends,” said Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat.
King later said he would expect to see different methods for meeting the department’s criteria on average-spending requirements.
The secretary denied Alexander’s claim that the department had ignored Congress to change comparability standards lawmakers intentionally left alone.
King countered that his office is fulfilling a portion of the law known as “supplement not supplant,” which seeks to prevent states from using federal dollars to replace state and local funding. States that cut taxes sharply must make up the shortfall by cutting the state budget, most often including cuts to the sums spent on education.
“We’re not making a change to comparability, we’re making a change to supplement not supplant to reflect a change in the law,” King told the Senate.
Not swayed by King’s “backfill” argument, however, Alexander ended today’s session by reminding King of his obligation to follow the laws Congress writes.
“I hope you’ll take another look at that,” Alexander said. “I mean your responsibility is to faithfully execute the law and abide by the letter of the law. And I don’t think the beginning of those rule proposals suggests that that’s what some of the employees are doing.”
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