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'Disturbing Evidence' of Admin Cheating on Education Law, Chairman Charges

President Obama sits with preschoolers at Powell Elementary School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington on March 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee has accused the Obama administration of ignoring congressional mandates in implementing portions of the new education reform law passed in December.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) confronted Education Secretary John King during a frequently testy hearing, asserting there exists “disturbing evidence” that the Department of Education is proposing a regulation that “would do exactly what the law says it shall not do” and that he will use “every power of Congress to make sure the law is implemented the way we wrote it.”

Alexander scolded King, saying the new law that passed and was signed by President Obama, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, replacing the troubled No Child Left Behind Act adopted during the administration of President George W. Bush, is being unilaterally changed.

“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 said.

At issue is a provision related to the disbursal of so-called Title I funds aimed at improving the educational opportunities for underprivileged students.

Alexander said Congress, in bipartisan fashion, decided to leave unchanged a provision in the law known as “comparability,” created in 1970, which requires school districts to provide at least comparable services with state and local funding to Title I schools – high-poverty institutions — as those provided to non-Title I schools. The law specifically mandates that school districts shall not include teacher pay when they measure spending for purposes of comparability.

The administration, Alexander said, is ignoring that provision in developing the regulations to carry out the law.

“The department is forcing school districts to include teacher salaries in how they measure their state and local spending and require that state and local spending in Title I schools be at least equal to the average spent in non-Title I schools,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he was stressing the point “because we’re at the beginning of the implementation of a law that affects 3.4 million teachers and 50 million students in 100,000 public schools.” He threatened to use the appropriations process to reject any regulations that fail to meet the law’s mandates and might even consider encouraging a lawsuit to force the department to comply.

“I’m determined to see that the law is implemented the way Congress wrote it,” he said. “I think it’s important at the beginning of this implementation to make sure that you and those who work at the department understand that.”

For his part, King insisted the Department of Education is not overstepping its bounds and is simply trying to make sure the local districts are following proper procedures to attract federal funds.

“That methodology should ensure that at least as much in state and local spending is taking place in the Title I schools as in the average of non-Title I schools,” King said.

In fact, the Obama administration is looking for a way around the comparability provision in an effort to require greater local spending on Title I schools. The department is looking to use a different section of the new law, known as “supplement, not supplant,” which requires local school districts to establish that federal funds they receive under Title I are being used in addition to — not instead of — state and local monies.

The new rule essentially suggests that local districts can cite a variety of ways to prove federal funds are not supplanting state and local school aid, provided that per-pupil spending in Title I was at least equal to the average per-pupil spending level in non-Title I schools. One way could be to include teacher salaries, which generally are thought to be lower in Title I schools.

Alexander states the regulation would therefore force districts to include teacher salaries in their calculations in violation of the comparability provision.

The department, King maintained, is trying to assure that Title I funds “would be genuinely supplemental, not used to backfill.”

“Education is, and should remain, primarily a state and local responsibility,” King said. “What we do at the federal level is support states and districts to improve opportunity for all students, invest in local innovation, research and scale what works, ensure transparency and protect our students’ civil rights, providing guardrails to ensure educational opportunity for all children.”

In his testimony, King spoke glowingly about ESSA, saying the new law reflects “many of the priorities that this administration has put forward over the last seven years, moving forward a vision grounded in equity – to ensure that every young person in America receives an education that will prepare him or her with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and future careers.”

Essa, King said, “creates high expectations for students and for schools and it invests in local innovation – including evidence-based and place-based interventions – consistent with our administration’s ideas and priorities.”

The law, he noted, requires that all students be taught to high academic standards and shares vital information about their progress and performance with educators, families, students and communities on an annual basis through statewide assessments.

ESSA also, he said, “encourages a smarter approach to testing, moving away from a sole focus on standardized tests to drive decisions around the quality of schools and allowing for the use of multiple measures of student learning and progress – along with other indicators of student success – to make school accountability decisions.”