Education reform: Building ESSA (Part 2) — interview with Lindsay Fryer | VIEWPOINT
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Education reform: Building ESSA (Part 2) — interview with Lindsay Fryer | VIEWPOINT


Rick: Hey, everyone. This is part number two of our discussion
with Penn Hill Vice President, Lindsay Fryer. It picks up right where we left off in part
number one. Welcome back. So the Obama administration under Secretary
John King had to write regulations with all the Washington around the law. Those regulations wound up being a hot potato
kind of back and forth, and Congress wound up using the Congressional Review Act a couple
of months back to strike down most of those regulations. Can you talk a little bit about what were
the regulations, why did they become controversial, and what do you think of the decision to use
the Congressional Review Act there? Lindsay: Yeah. So the regulations I’d say largely dealt with
the main provisions of the law, which is accountability, standards, assessments, school improvement. The regulations looked at what was in the
statute and added more clarity in some places, more parameters in other places around how
states had to address the specific aspects of the law. And, you know, that is the executive’s role,
it is their role to use regulations to clarify law where necessary. I think the issue with the Congressional Review
Act is that the Republicans in Congress, and some Democrats, too, although ultimately they
didn’t vote for the CRA, did feel that in some places the administration had gone too
far in adding more parameters and more restrictions in the law than was intended by Congress. One example of that would be the weighting
of indicators, which I talked a bunch about on this video thus far. The regulations, as I mentioned, you know,
all the law said was each of the academics have to be significant and in the grand scheme
of things, in the aggregate, way more than non-academic indicators, or other indicators
of school quality. The regulations basically had…states had
to do three tests to prove that that was the case, that these academics outweighed the
school quality indicators. And, essentially, it rendered the school quality
indicators meaningless and accountability, because you would be a school identified for
improvement if you did poorly on your academics, but then your non-academics or school quality
indicator can never pull you out of identification essentially. So, you know, it felt that, like, what was
intended to be flexible became very inflexible. And just a lot of places where Congress said,
“States, you decide how to define certain terms, or how you wanna spend your money here,
or like what’s important to you when picking your priorities.” The regulations added a lot of new parameters
within those areas. So, you know, I think Republicans felt that
they wanted to repeal those regulations and that this is a rare opportunity, meaning CRA
had only been used one time before. And, you know, from a political standpoint,
I think it was a move that Congress had to take, you know, the Republicans had just taken
the presidency, they had full control in Congress. Why would they keep old regulations on the
book when they could have a chance to kind of [crosstalk 00:03.10]? Rick: Do you think they were right to use
CRA to get rid of the threats? Lindsay: Yes, so, you know, I’ve mixed feelings
on this. The way that a negotiation works, there are
some aspects of the law that you leave ambiguous, because it’s very difficult to negotiate and
come to a compromise. So there are some terms that you come up with
that aren’t loaded politically, and, you know, sometimes there should be a little clarity
given to some of those terms. Like, clarity is important, but clarity at
the cost of what? Like, clarity does not mean more requirements,
more parameters. So, you know, in some places the regulations
did help. I think they gave more flexibility in some
areas, and the law actually provided, but in other areas, they went way too far. So I think I went back and forth personally
about whether or not I thought CRA was a good idea. But what I will say is, with it gone, with
the regulations gone, there’s an unprecedented opportunity for states to really design their
systems, and there’s systems for accountability, and there’s no longer, like, an excuse to
blame the federal government when things go wrong. Rick: So states are starting to write these
plans. You’ve talked to states that are doing this. Some of the state plans have been submitted. What do you think of them so far? Are they promising, or they’re not promising,
or they’re just paper and it’s hard to say anything yet? Lindsay: Yeah. So I think it’s hard to say at this point. There’s a lot of gaps in the plans that have
been submitted. Like, many states haven’t set goals for what
they want their students to achieve, which was a main tenet of the law. So, you know, I think it’s yet to be seen
how these plans play out. My hope was always that with new flexibilities
and new control that there’d be a lot of innovative things that emerge. I think states are a little scared to kind
of go out on a limb at this point, because they’re so used to the department saying yes
or no to every decision that they had to make in education. So it’s yet to be seen, like, if huge new
things are going to emerge that we haven’t seen before. But, you know, the plans do matter in the
sense that this is how you apply for your dollars, and there’s a new aspect of transparency
that the old law never had, where, you know, the public’s gonna be able to take a look
at these plans, comment on them, they’re very, very publicly available. So let’s let the public decide and be the
deciding factor here. Rick: You know, so as I’m listening to you
talk about it and I’m just watching, there’s something, “Oh, wait a minute, there’s all
these plans, these goals, this is like NCLB.” That feels a little bit like Soviet five-year,
like, farming plant, “We are gonna grow 10 million more metric tons of crops.” Like, how much should we actually care about
whether states say, “Five years from now, like, magically students are going to be able
to get…”? Is that an important part of helping states
kind of actually improve schools, or is this a bunch of bureaucratic busywork? Lindsay: So I think that it’s important to
set a goal for something to reach to and strive towards. Because, otherwise, what are you working towards? Like, you have to measure whether or not you’re
making progress. I think that’s an important thing that we
learned from No Child Left Behind, and we got better data about how students are doing. The issue with goal setting, it depends on
how seriously states take it, right? What if a state says, “By 2035, I’m gonna
have 19% of my kids proficient”? Well, you know, that seems a little ridiculous. You know, I think it’s yet to be seen how
important these goals are. But I think a lot of states are thinking,
like, more near-term, “What do I want for this school year or these next two school
years versus my long-term goal of whatever that might be?” I think states are, from what I’ve seen, taking
that fairly seriously in terms of their discussions although they might not be done on paper yet. So, you know, I think from a perspective of
allowing the public to say, “Are our schools doing the job that they’re intended to do?” there should be goals that people are striving
towards, and there should be some accountability for whether or not schools are achieving those
goals. Rick: What do people not know about ESSA that
actually is important? Lindsay: So I mentioned, you know, a lot of
flexibilities that weren’t in the law prior in terms of moving your money around. There’s interesting provisions, like weighted
student funding, a weighted student funding pilot, where states are experimenting from
what I’ve learned about how to allocate their own state in local dollars in unique ways,
so where money is given to kids based on their characteristics, so are they an English learner,
are they homeless, like money is actually tagged to unique characteristics, and essentially
the money does follow the child to the school that they attend. The federal dollars don’t flow that way, and
there’s a unique ability now for districts if they want to apply to the secretary to
say, “Actually, I want my federal dollars to flow that way, in the way that state local
dollars are flowing.” So I think it’ll be interesting to see, since
more districts and states are interested in this type of funding, if they take advantage
of the flexibility that the law has. And then one thing in terms of process, like
getting away from content, I think one of the biggest things I learned in this negotiation
was, like, how hard to compromise is and how hard it actually is to get a bill through
Congress, and all the different, like, little points along the way that I couldn’t think,
really like… Rick: So say more about that, because like…right? I mean, you watch this stuff, and you’re like,
“Mum, I can’t possibly be this slow.” Like, can you… What are a couple of, like, things that come
to mind when you try to explain to people, like, why it was so hard? Lindsay: Yeah. So, I mean, the number one thing in the Senate
in terms of the makeup when I saw was moving is we needed Democrats on board, Republicans
are in the majority, but we needed Democrats on board to usher the bill through. We didn’t have 60 votes. So, from the beginning, I think our expectations
were set that, you know, we need to figure out a bipartisan compromise, and in the Senate,
that means, like, every single senator, each of 100 senators has their own voice that can
stop the process at any given point along the way. I mean, you start with the committee, the
HELP Committee, which is in charge of education policy and putting forth a proposal to move
to the full Senate. You know, we had to get everybody involved,
because everybody has an opinion. And education is just that way, just because
someone went to school, they think they’re an expert in education. So we had to manage all these different viewpoints
to make sure that everybody felt that their voice was heard, and as soon as people started
to feel like their voice wasn’t heard, they could stop the process in the Senate. So, you know, you start with Committee, then
you move to the floor, then you move to conference where the House and Senate come together to
compromise, and then you have to repass everything again. So it’s a very difficult process and very
time-consuming to make sure that you’re constantly listening to feedback that you’re getting
and incorporating it in the best way that you can without hitting any holes that could
completely tank the bill. And then there’s outside issues completely
not within education that if senators are upset about on one day could come to the floor
and stop the process, from the bill moving. So… Rick: What are some of the complaints or pushback
you heard that were more surprising, that before you worked on Capitol Hill you wouldn’t
have thought these people would be complaining about this or something? Lindsay: So I’ll flip that question a little
bit. I think actually what we heard was the process
in the Senate is always so convoluted, the deals are done behind closed doors, and the
senators never know what they’re voting on. So because we had heard that for so long,
what we as a committee tried to do was meet with every single office, tell them about
the bill, tell them about their opportunities for amendments, and really let them know what
they were voting for. So the criticism of Washington being this
black hole, like, full of backroom deals, we actually brought that out and said, “Actually
we’re gonna do this fully transparently.” And that made our lives as staff a lot more
difficult, because everyone knows what’s in the bill, everyone knows what they’re voting
for, they’re analyzing every word, and, again, if they don’t like a word, then they can say,
“I’m done with this.” So we took the tactic of transparency is better,
being open is better, and in the end it was true, because we were able to move a product. Rick: So, you know, given that, if you’re
talking to folks who are working on Capitol Hill now, working in the staff in states,
or working in school boards, like, are there a couple of takeaways for you, a couple things
you’ve learned about how to write legislation, how to try to pass legislation in a way that
you’re more likely to get where you wanna go? Lindsay: Mm-hmm, I’d say one thing I tried
very hard to do as the staff of kind of handling this process was not saying no to every idea
that came across my desk. So it’s very easy when you know something’s
controversial to be like, “We’re definitely not doing that,” and sometimes you just have
to say no. But what I tried to do was, being that I knew
I had to manage all different member priorities, many advocacy group priorities, from the unions,
to the civil rights, to the conservatives, I’d look at the proposal and say, “All right,
maybe we can’t do this exactly, but this theme is something that we can explore,” and then
work with individuals to put some ideas into legislation that other people might have just
said no to. And that was a really important lesson, I
think. You know, compromise is the only way to get
these things done, and compromise is really hard, but, you know, it’s really important
to listen to people and try to come to a yes rather than just say no all the time. Rick: And last question, so that’s important,
to compromise. But you also pointed out earlier that when
you’re writing these things, and sometimes you just leave it vague or fuzzy to get compromise. So when you’re passing a big law like this,
how do you think about making sure that those compromises and that fuzziness doesn’t get
the law passed, but yield a law that’s confusing, or frustrating, or unhelpful for schools,
and educators, and kids? Lindsay: It’s a great question. I think, from the beginning, Alexander, like,
set forth for his staff principles that he wanted to accomplish, and I set those out
in the beginning, you stay in local control, reducing the high stakes around testing, making
sure the secretary couldn’t interfere in education. And so I always had those principles in my
mind as I was negotiating. And, you know, I felt that as long as those
were being met and I could go back to him and say, “This is the agreement that we came
to. This is how we met your goals. And it’s better than it was before,” that
that was a win. And so, you know, certain areas and certain
words, you know, words absolutely matter, but the having the bigger goal in mind and
not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, I think, was like my guiding light in
the negotiation. And I felt that that gave us a product that
is actually, like, good for educators, kids, states, and districts across the board at
the end of the day, and largely because it gives them the opportunity to shape education
versus me as the policymaker, right? So I think that the details absolutely matter
and they’re very important. But I think keeping your principles in line
as you’re negotiating and making sure that, you know, you can’t compromise on these things,
but you can on these things, that’s how you get legislation done, and it ended up in a
pretty good product, I think. Rick: Cool. Lindsay, thank you so much. Lindsay: Thank you. Rick: Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Penn
Hill Vice President, Lindsay Fryer. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI scholars to cover on Viewpoint, and be sure to check out the rest of our videos
and research from AEI.

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