Here's Why Republicans Killing Education Regulations Means More Burdens on States, Not Less

A lot of people have been talking about the uncertainty that might come if Washington nixes regulations for the nation’s latest education law or what effect doing that could have on kids. But for all this talk of uncertainty, for many parents, teachers, and other stakeholders in education, it’s unclear what exactly what will be unclear. What is clear, though, is that House and Senate leaders who ostensibly want to create less burdens on states—and less bureaucracy—will actually be creating more by taking an extreme approach to eliminating regulations.

The Backstory

First a little context for those who haven’t been following this closely. (If you’re already up to speed, feel free to skip ahead.) In December of 2015, Congress revamped the old No Child Left Behind law, and renamed it the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This law, often called ESSA, calls on states to develop plans to set high academic standards, give students tests, and track how schools are doing—stepping in to help when necessary. The law also limits the federal government’s ability to get too involved in things like education standards and shifts a lot of the decision-making authority back to the states. But like most laws, some parts of ESSA are a bit vague. So in the final days of the Obama administration the U.S. Education Department finalized some regulations that told states when and how to submit their state plans for federal approval, when they need to start doing what’s in their plans, and how the department would interpret parts of the law that are not very specific. Congress thought the regulations went too far, so last month the House voted to throw them all out. The Senate is expected to do the same soon, and shortly after that, President Trump will likely sign the law and make it official. Once this has happened, writing new regulations that are substantially similar is prohibited.

Why It Matters

There are basically two consequences for repealing regulations. First, there’s going to be some confusion over things like when and how to submit state plans, as well as timelines for implementing the law and timelines for addressing underperforming schools. That confusion could easily lead to delays in actually making stuff happen for kids or delays in getting federal funding states need to keep schools running. The other consequence is that states will be given even more flexibility. Some—typically the strongest of states’ rights supporters—see that as a good thing. Others see it as completely removing what little safeguards exist to hold states accountable and protect students, particularly students of color, with disabilities, or from low-income communities. Both sets of consequences are important, but for this post, let’s just focus on what might become confusing for states trying to meet the demands of the law and why that matters for parents, teachers and school leaders.

Timelines and Criteria for Submitting State Plans

Two weeks ago U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asked states to assume the existing deadlines for submitting their plans will stay the same (one deadline in April, another in September) and she promised to have a new template available for states to use for submitting their plans by March 21. But without actual regulations, states just have to take her word for it. And if there’s no new regulation—which is also possible since the law prohibits creating a similar regulation—states could potentially ignore the current April and September deadlines and be justified in doing so. If regulations don’t take effect, there’s nothing that commits states to submitting proposed plans by a certain deadline, or in any particular way. That spells bureaucratic chaos and delays at the federal and state levels, which will quickly trickle down to local districts and schools. Timelines for identifying and addressing underperforming schools will also be in question. The law says states have to start doing that by this fall, the start of the 2017-18 school year. But the existing regulations pushed that deadline back for states by one year. States have been preparing for the deadline that’s in the regulation. If the regulation goes away, states may have to scramble to put a plan in place before they’re really ready to do so. If this happens, you can expect a lot of missteps happening at every level of the education system, and a lot of frustration.

Will State Plans be Approved?

Without clear regulations on when and how to submit plans, or even how the plans should be structured or what should be in them, states typically wouldn’t have any confidence that a plan they submit would be approved. However, based on signals from DeVos, it’s very likely the Education Department will approve just about anything a state might send in. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, made it pretty explicit when he told a group of 700 state education leaders that they should “assume that the U.S. Department of Education will say yes" to their plans. “You have a president and an education secretary who do not believe in a national school board,” he told them. “They believe in you. They want you to make those decisions.” So some might argue that this is an area of uncertainty if regulations go away. While that’s technically true (the administration could change its mind at any time), it’s more likely that states can feel very certain that the federal government will rubber-stamp whatever they submit, which defeats the point of even having the U.S. Education Department involved. Giving out money without attaching clear conditions is a recipe for waste and could lay the groundwork for eliminating the department completely, which one congressman recently proposed and many have discussed.

Next Administration May Write New Regulations

Even if this administration sticks to its non-binding statements about what states should or shouldn’t do, and how much leeway states actually have, there’s no guarantee that the next administration in four or eight years will keep things the same. If a new administration decides to write new regulations, state plans could be suddenly out of compliance and need to be reworked. Arguably, even if the regulations stayed in place, a new administration could write new ones, but the likelihood of that happening is much greater if there are little to no regulations to begin with when it takes over.

An Extreme Solution

Generally in government, people on all sides of the political spectrum agree that some regulations are needed. Often, it’s not even a question on things like health and food safety, but even with more controversial regulations like those on big banks, nobody’s saying there should be absolutely no regulations. But that’s basically the approach congress is taking with education regulations. It’s all or nothing. It’s an extreme solution. And it sets the stage for more bureaucratic nightmares, not less.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly suggested implementing the entire law would be pushed to 2018-19 by the regulations. In reality, the regulations would only push back the part dealing with identifying schools that need support.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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