This article, written by Erica L. Green, originally appeared in the New York Times.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 as the less intrusive successor to the No Child Left Behind law, which was maligned by many in both political parties as punitive and prescriptive. But in the Education Department’s feedback to states about their plans to put the new law into effect, it applied strict interpretations of statutes, required extensive detail and even deemed some state education goals lackluster.

In one case, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Jason Botel, wrote to the State of Delaware that its long-term goals for student achievement were not “ambitious.”

“It is mind-boggling that the department could decide that it’s going to challenge them on what’s ambitious,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who worked in the Education Department under President George W. Bush. He called the letter “directly in opposition to the rhetoric and the promises of DeVos.”

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After more than a decade of strict federal education standards and standardized testing regimes, the Every Student Succeeds Act was to return latitude to the states to come up with plans to improve student achievement and hold schools accountable for student performance.

It sought to relieve states from the federal pressures of its predecessor, which required that 100 percent of the students of every school reach proficiency on state tests or the school would face harsh penalties and aggressive interventions. Unlike No Child Left Behind, the new law does not set numerical achievement targets, nor does it mandate how a state should intervene if a school fails to reach them. The law does require that states set such benchmarks on their own.

Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos, who pointed to the new law as illustrative of the state-level empowerment she champions.

But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility: While she has said she would like to see her office’s role in running the nation’s public schools diminished, she has also said she will uphold the law.

“All of the signals she has been sending is that she’s going to approve any plan that follows the law,” Mr. Petrilli said. “And when in doubt, she’s going to give the states the benefit of the doubt.”

Mr. Botel defended the department’s feedback, saying it was measuring state plans against federal statutes — including a requirement that plans be ambitious.

“Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious,” Mr. Botel said.

In the department’s letter to Delaware — which incited the most outrage from conservative observers — Mr. Botel took aim at the state’s plan to halve the number of students not meeting proficiency rates in the next decade. Such a goal would have resulted in only one-half to two thirds of some groups of students achieving proficiency, he noted.

The department deemed those long-term goals, as well as those for English-language learners, not ambitious, and directed the state to revise its plans to make them more so.

So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans, and more states will present plans in the fall. Delaware, New Mexico and Nevada were the first three to be reviewed by Education Department staff and a panel of peer reviewers.

State education officials in Delaware said they had spent a year engaging the community on their plan and would resubmit it with clarifications.

But Atnre Alleyne, the executive director of DelawareCAN, an advocacy group that helped draft the plan, agreed with the department’s findings.

He said that his group had challenged the state about accountability measures, such as setting firm goals and consequences for failing to meet them, and found that “there was a lot of fear about being bold or aggressive” after No Child Left Behind.

“Ultimately this has to be about every student succeeding, so to say that one-third are going to be proficient in 10 years, the department is right to call that into question,” Mr. Alleyne said. “A lot of people thought it was just going to be a breeze. I was glad to see it was a push.”

Since Ms. DeVos was confirmed, civil rights and education advocates have expressed concern that state plans would get assembly-line approval and states would be allowed to skirt responsibility for low-performing and historically underserved students.

For all of its flaws, the No Child Left Behind Act was praised for holding schools accountable for performance data. Under the law, a school was considered failing if all of its student groups, including all racial and ethnic groups, English-language learners and students with disabilities, did not meet annual achievement targets. By the end of the law, more than half of the nation’s schools were considered failures.

But even after the first round of feedback, the advocates would like the department to be more aggressive and reject any state plan that lacks specifics on how they will account for the performance of historically underperforming and underserved student populations.

“Pushback and feedback in and of themselves are of no interest and of no value,” said Liz King, the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, who led an independent examination of state plans, said that some states, like Louisiana, New Mexico and Tennessee, had innovative plans to improve student achievement.

But Mr. Aldeman agreed that many state plans reflected “process without specificity” when it came to the two most important parts of the new law — identifying how schools will account for the performance of all students, and how states plan to intervene in low-performing schools. And Ms. DeVos and Republican lawmakers were partly to blame.

“The administration has signaled that they’re willing to take plans that are half-baked, and we’re seeing plans that aren’t finished and are not complete,” Mr. Aldeman said.

Christopher Ruszkowski, the acting secretary for the New Mexico Public Education Department, said the idea that the new law would yield total state control was merely “rhetoric from the Beltway.”

“I think a lot of the euphoria over return to local control was an overpromise,” he said. “What this signals is that U.S.D.E. will continue to play the role they’ve always played in the years ahead.”

In feedback for five more states — Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon and Tennessee — the Education Department avoided criticizing the ambitions of the state plans. But it did maintain its scrutiny.

For example, the department noted that Tennessee neglected to identify, as the law requires, languages other than English spoken among its student population because it considers itself “an English-only state.” According to the state’s population profile, nearly 50,000 students speak English as a second language.

And in Connecticut’s plan, the department pointed out that the state discussed ways to identify schools that had “consistently underperforming” student groups, but did not actually define what that meant.

The state was also criticized for its use of an alternative system for measuring academic performance instead of more standard “proficiency” measurements on state tests, as the law requires.

Such feedback signaled that the department “appears to be resorting to very traditional and narrow ways of interpreting student and school performance,” said Laura Stefon, chief of staff for the Connecticut State Department of Education.

Connecticut was also among a handful of states faulted for including science as a subject for measuring achievement, even though the law allows the use only of reading and math. This feedback was widely criticized by academic groups, including the National Science Teachers Association, who said the department was interpreting the law too literally.

State leaders said they believed they were all but promised their plans would be approved. Instead, Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said some aspects of the Education Department’s feedback were “overzealous” and could undermine community involvement.

“It’s going to be really hard for a state to go back and say, ‘I know I told you we were doing all of this, but we’re going to change it because the federal government told us not to,’” Mr. Minnich said.


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