Nebraska education plan under DC microscope

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- With an eye on Nebraska, U.S. Senators scrutinize state plans to find and fix failing schools. It’s a moment three years in the making – as schools prepare for a test that will determine the future of education, at home and across the nation.

A new chapter in American public education is just beginning. In Nebraska, Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt is responsible for turning reform plans into results.

“We’ve really raised the bar in Nebraska,” he said.

Tuesday, he updated Congress on his state’s efforts to improve schools and chip away at the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Up until three years ago, the federal government dictated which tests to give students and how to measure results. Now, it’s up to states to grade themselves and calculate solutions.

In Nebraska, the bottom five percent of schools will receive a ‘needs improvement’ grade. Blomstedt told Senators they’ve moved away from calling a school ‘failing,’ but noted administrators, “know what the grade means.”

By December, 35 schools will be singled out as falling short of standards and that’s when the tough part of figuring out fixes will begin. Exactly how that will happen remains unclear.

That’s because the formula to fix those schools is straightforward but lacking in detail until cases present themselves. The state will work with each school requiring intervention to build a custom remediation plan. Blomstedt said cookie-cutter solutions won’t deliver results.

Bomstedt said custom plans, “give us a chance to work with them and help them craft a plan that’s going to make a difference for them.”

While lawmakers held up Nebraska as a model, the bi-partisan support that put states back in control is beginning to crumble.

“Today I really want to focus on the real-life impacts of some of these flawed state plans,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

She and fellow democrats who attended the hearing voiced concern that the Trump administration isn’t doing enough to make sure state plans make the grade. They also complained that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has yet to testify before their committee. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander dismissed both complaints.

Mothers packed the audience to show concern that all-purpose funding in the education law could be used by some states to pay for arming teachers. Democrats expressed similar concerns. Alexander said he doesn’t think arming teachers is a good idea but suggested the language of the law might give states the flexibility to do so as a security measure.

Blomstedt said Nebraska has other ideas about how to spend that cash. “We wouldn’t make that possible,” he said of letting schools use federal cash to purchase guns.

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