Federal officials like to talk about “flexibility” and local control in education, including in descriptions of the Trump administration’s proposed education tax credit. But to Arizona lawmakers, this rings hollow. After they voted to give teachers and school leaders back the authority to make key decisions about classroom instruction, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) said, “Nope.”
Under federal law, district high schools must test their students in math and reading once before students graduate. This year, Arizona lawmakers allowed high schools to choose from a menu of assessments to find a test that matched the school’s curriculum. The menu includes college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT, and Arizona’s state school board had planned to expand the menu to include nationally normed tests that also allow for comparisons between schools and districts.
As Heritage Foundation research reported two years ago, the proposal was a departure from the top-down testing requirements coming from Washington and was meant to give teachers more time to teach. In 2017, the Education Department seemed open to new ideas, with officials touting the “flexibility” of the latest version of the federal K-12 law, now called the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), and advocates saying the law “returns a significant amount of power and decision-making authority to states, districts and schools.”
Yet USED recently sent Arizona’s education agency a letter threatening to withhold $340 million in federal spending because of the test menu. The letter is odd, and not just because of the earlier claims about returning power to the states but also because ESSA has a provision that allows states to try new testing methods.
Few states made an attempt. While Arizona was not part of this pilot project, the agency’s nastygram will likely be enough to scare others from even trying.
Arizona state board of education member and Vail Unified School District Superintendent Cal Baker said via e-mail, “I was optimistic about developing a good solution — especially at the high school level.” Because of the federal agency’s letter, however, “significant changes will be required,” he said, although he hopes the state can “retain some provisions of testing choice.”
This latest rejection of state autonomy does not help convince us that Washington is prepared to “empower states to lead the way” through ESSA or other new federal initiatives, such as a tax credit for contributing to private school scholarship organizations.
Federal lawmakers recently gave shape to the Trump administration’s longstanding promise to create more school choice from Washington. The proposal would provide tax credits to individuals and businesses that make contributions to charitable organizations that grant K-12 private school scholarships.
The U.S. Department of Education says “each participating state will determine how it will structure its program, including eligible students, education providers, and education expenses.” How much can states and voters really believe this, however, when the same department is not willing to give states the ability to control more of their own education systems’ destinies with testing choice?
Arizona’s testing example is just the latest in the line of new federal requirements and caps on state autonomy. Lawmakers and researchers have documented the steadily increasing federal presence in state education affairs for years.
Just a decade ago the Obama administration was coercing states to change academic standards and educator evaluation systems by dangling federal grants in front of state officials. With Arizona’s testing law, the Education Department had the opportunity to improve its reputation as another overbearing federal agency.
More than half of U.S. states offer K-12 private school scholarship opportunities and other learning options through state tax credits, vouchers, or education savings accounts. The returns for students on these learning options and others, such as public charter schools, have been strong. Children around the country need more opportunities such as these, but asking Washington to create these options risks losing state and even school autonomy, as the education department routinely demonstrates, apparently even when run by people who praise school choice.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says, “All students should have the freedom to pursue an education that develops their talents, unleashes their unique potential, and prepares them for a successful life.” She’s right. Some states are trying, through school choice and by other means. Now if only Washington would get out of the way.