WASHINGTON — The majority of states now have the green light from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to begin implementing a sweeping federal law passed in 2015 to replace the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law.
But state and federal education policymakers are running into a surprising source of opposition: governors.
Ms. DeVos has approved 35 plans, including those from Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., that provide a road map for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan law passed under President Barack Obama that returns the reins of education reform to states. The law required every state education department to submit a plan.
Of those 35, six are from states where the governor refused to sign on: Maryland, Georgia, Wisconsin, Missouri, Louisiana and New York. Three others that did not get a governor’s endorsement — those from Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kentucky — are pending approval.
Of the nine disputed plans, seven are opposed by Republican governors.
The governors have publicly protested their states’ goals, deeming them underwhelming at best and at worst unjust. In many cases, the governors invoked some of the harsh language that Ms. DeVos herself had used to denounce school districts that they said trapped students in failing schools. Yet they have received little support from a secretary who would seem to be a natural ally.
Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, said his state’s plan “does not take full advantage of the opportunities for flexibility and innovation, nor does it set adequately high expectations for Georgia’s students.” In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, another Republican, said the state’s plans for improving failing schools amounted to little more than “bureaucratic paperwork” and “does little to challenge the status quo.”
In perhaps the most contentious case, Maryland’s moderate Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is engaged in a bitter battle with the Democrat-controlled Legislature over the state’s education goals, which a spokesman called “a farce.”
As Maryland was compiling its plan, the Legislature passed a bill to limit strategies championed by the governor that would allow state leaders to implement major changes for persistently low-performing schools. The Legislature was seeking to protect against what lawmakers saw as privatization efforts, such as expanding charter schools and vouchers — what a teachers union called the “DeVos playbook.”
In a letter to Ms. DeVos, Mr. Hogan wrote that he could not support his own state’s plan given the “impossible circumstances” that the Legislature had imposed.
“The governor’s not going to put his name on something that he doesn’t think actually helps students,” said Douglass V. Mayer, a spokesman for Mr. Hogan. “It’s frankly disgusting.”
While governors’ signatures were not required for approval, Congress went to great lengths to identify the state executives as key stakeholders in the next wave of education reform. Not only did they get their own signature box, but governors were mentioned 23 times in the law, which calls for plans to be assembled with “timely and meaningful consultation with the governor.”
The bill was the first to be endorsed by the National Governors Association since the welfare overhaul of 1996. The organization, which has helped governors navigate their new role in the law, said the small group of governors who withheld their signatures illustrates the larger tension around the transfer back to local control.
“It’s such a fundamental shift that it’s actually going as well as it can,” said Anna Davis, the director of government relations at the National Governors Association. “Governors feel now more accountable. It’s an exciting time.”
Federal Education Department officials said the governors’ protests did not factor into the decisions about whether to approve state plans.
“Under E.S.S.A., the secretary’s job is to ensure that state plans comply with the law, not to provide her opinion on the state’s approach,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. “She hopes that these plans will be seen not as a ceiling but as a foundation upon which states can improve education for all students.”
Before signing the law in December 2015, Mr. Obama called it a “Christmas miracle” because it had achieved the tricky task of allowing state flexibility within a federal framework. It replaced the top-heavy No Child Left Behind Act from the George W. Bush era. That law had become unpopular because of its emphasis on testing and prescriptive mandates, though it is still widely praised for unmasking the nation’s achievement gaps, particularly for black, poor and special education students.
Ms. DeVos has drawn criticism from both parties for her department’s approach to the new law, particularly from its chief architects, Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington. Ms. Murray has criticized Ms. DeVos as a rubber stamp for plans that fail to execute the law’s intent to hold schools accountable for struggling students, even while Mr. Alexander balked at what he saw as the Education Department’s heavy hand in attempting to enforce the new law.
In Maryland, the law has become a political football. The heavily Democratic state has a Republican governor, powerful teachers unions and a high-profile, low-performing school district, Baltimore, that holds the bulk of the state’s charter schools.
Citing the new law’s charge for governors to be involved in education planning, Mr. Hogan submitted to the State Board of Education several suggestions for overhauling schools performing in the bottom 5 percent, such as creating separate school districts, expanding charter schools run by private companies and increasing funding for a state voucher program for private schools.
Shortly thereafter, a bill emerged in the Maryland General Assembly, the Protect Our Schools Act, that banned every intervention the governor had suggested. The bill also said academic indicators such as test scores could account for no more than 65 percent of a school’s performance rating, among the lowest percentages proposed in the country.
Mr. Hogan vetoed the bill, but the Legislature overrode his veto. Mr. Hogan plans to back legislation seeking to reverse the bill’s provisions.
The Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most Maryland teachers, was among the major champions of the legislation. Union officials praise the state’s plan as a step in the right direction and away from the “test-and-punish” culture of No Child Left Behind. Limiting the weight of academic standards reflects the reality that there is more than one way to gauge the success of a school, they said.
Cheryl Bost, the vice president of the state union, said it was “unfortunate” that the governor chose not to sign the state plan.
“It also signals he has prioritized vouchers, takeover districts, for-profit charters over the value of public education in Maryland,” she said.
The state school board, which includes several appointees of the governor, echoed Mr. Hogan’s concerns about the legislation, which, the board wrote, “dramatically de-prioritizes student achievement.”
“It’s understandable why the governor didn’t sign off,” said Andy Smarick, the president of the board. “If anything, his action helps keep alive the serious debate about how best to serve kids.”
While the state plan does call for identifying consistently low-performing schools for “targeted support,” such as staffing changes and resource reallocation, it is scant on details for what happens if a school fails to improve after a number of years. In the section of the response that calls for outlining what steps it would take if a significant number of schools continued to fail to make improvements, the state replied “N/A.”
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