By Sally Absher

Last month, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander welcomed members of the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA) to his Washington D.C. office. KCS Board of Education member Patti Bounds was one of a group of TSBA members in Washington to participate in the National School Boards Association’s Advocacy Institute.

He told the TSBA members, “Tennessee public school classrooms are back in the hands of Tennesseans thanks to the new education law that repeals the federal Common Core mandate, reverses the trend toward a national school board and restores local control of public schools.”

“We have reversed the trend toward a national school board and are moving decisions out of Washington into the hands of classrooms, teachers and parents,” said Alexander. “I’d recommend that you form a coalition in Tennessee of teachers, principals, parents, superintendents, legislators, along with Governor Haslam and Education Commissioner Candace McQueen, and work together to write a new state education plan, which is necessary to receive federal dollars for your schools. The national coalition that worked to pass the law, is now working to see that it is implemented it as Congress wrote it—a state coalition is just as important.”

Alexander serves as the Chair of the Senate education committee. He talked with TSBA members about his most recent signature legislation, the “Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which was passed by the House 359-64 and the senate 85-12, and signed by President Obama this past December. ESSA replaces the vastly unpopular No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Alexander claims that ESSA not only ends the National School Board run out of Washington, D.C., but also ends the federal Common Core mandate – comprised of conditional waivers, highly qualified teacher definition and requirements, teacher evaluation mandates, federal school turnaround models, federal test-based accountability and adequate yearly progress.

Alexander encouraged the school board members “to stay involved and stay in touch with me as we work to ensure Washington stays out of our classrooms.” Alexander has said, “The law isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on unless it is implemented properly, and I’ll use every power of Congress to make sure the law is implemented the way we wrote it for 50 million students and 3.4 million teachers in 100,000 public schools.”

But there are already signs that Alexander will need to be held accountable to his promise to “use every power of Congress to make sure the law is implemented the way we wrote it.”

Meet the U.S. Secretary of Education John King, who previously was the New York State Commissioner of Education. Parents in New York were so unhappy with King and his privatization efforts that many blame him as one of the primary causes of New York’s huge “Opt-Out” movement.

In May, the U.S. Education Department issued proposed regulations to give states guidance on how to implement the new K-12 ESSA. This resulted in immediate criticism by those who charge the Department of Education is continuing the same federal overreach that characterized NCLB.

Valerie Strauss, writing in the Washington Post, suggests that King is utilizing the drafting of regulations to try to shut down the Opt Out movement. She writes, “With a testing “opt out” movement that has been growing in recent years, the department spells out a series of punitive options states should take in an attempt to get schools to ensure 95% student participation rate on federally required state-selected standardized tests.”

She explains that ESSA continues the NCLB mandate of annual standardized testing in grades 3 – 8 and once in high school, despite the belief by many critics that standardized tests are not good measures of student progress. The opt out movement is a “revolt against testing, with many parents refusing to allow their children to take tests that they believe are being used improperly to evaluate students and teachers, and even some educators refusing to administer exams they believe are poorly designed.”

But if, as Alexander claims, ESSA ends the Common Core mandate, including federal test-based accountability, then why write regulations that continue to micromanage local education policy and punish schools with students who “Opt Out?” The implementation battle, says Strauss, is how much power the U.S. Education still has to tell school districts and states what to do.

Alexander said in a statement that he was “disappointed that the draft regulation seems to include provisions that the Congress considered – and expressly rejected.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was much more specific in her critique of the regulations, saying in a statement:

“Rather than listen to the outcry by parents and educators over hypertesting, the department offers specific punitive consequences for when fewer than 95 percent of students participate in tests. This doesn’t solve the issue of the misuse of testing. It simply inflames the problem by suggesting punitive consequences for those who are so frustrated by the misuse and high-stakes nature of standardized testing that they want to opt their kids out.

“The department seeks to impose a more aggressive timeline than the new law provides for districts to implement these new accountability systems. Without enough time to put them in place, states will revert back to what they have — a test-driven accountability system. This will maintain the old test-and-punish accountability systems and an overly prescriptive federal role in schools. That is not the reset ESSA promised.”

Yet Strauss reports that other critics don’t feel the proposed regulations go far enough in directing states what to do, specifically in dealing with groups of students in schools who are chronically “underperforming.”

For example, the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, said, “By allowing states to limit the definition of consistent underperformance for a group to being in the lowest performance level on an indicator, or being the farthest away from statewide average performance, it undermines the idea – and the congressional requirement – that any group that is struggling in any school needs help and assured action, not just the very lowest performing groups or groups in a limited number of schools.”

Patti Bounds told The Focus, “Tennessee has the opportunity to change public education for our children, teachers, and communities but we MUST get involved. We can’t let those in Nashville dictate the Tennessee Plan. Senator Alexander implored with local school boards to be proactive – and especially to encourage parents and educators to be involved – in developing the model we will use for our state.”

The proposed regulations are open for public comment through Aug. 1, 2016. You can read the proposed regulations and comment online here: