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Congress concedes power to states on schools

We moved from New Orleans to Raleigh 43 years ago, but time and distance haven’t dulled my appetite for Cajun and Creole cooking, or for the wonders of Louisiana politics. So on the Saturday evening before Thanksgiving, I went online to watch the live-stream of New Orleans television reports of the results of that day’s election runoff for governor.

The defeated candidate, Republican David Vitter, battered in a campaign that raised anew his dalliance with prostitutes, made news in his concession speech by announcing that he would not run for re-election to the U.S. Senate. The governor-elect, Democrat John Bel Edwards, gave a graceful victory speech about a “breeze of hope” cleansing the politics of scorn and negativity.

But what caught my attention was the way in which he thanked and introduced his wife, Donna, for her active role in his campaign. “Yes, she’s a public school teacher, and she’s the last person I talk to every night,” he said.

Two days after the election, The Advocate, the Baton Rouge-based newspaper, published an extensive analysis of the implications of the election of Edwards, backed by the state’s two teachers’ associations, along with several business-supported candidates for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The elections, the newspaper reported, set the stage for policy clashes over Common Core, vouchers, charter schools, and grading of public schools.

Meanwhile in Washington, House and Senate conferees have agreed on legislation to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The House voted this week to adopt the new federal law, and the Senate is expected to follow next week.

The ESEA, originally enacted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, provided federal funding to strengthen the education of students from low-income families. Fifty years later, schools still receive Title I assistance under that law.

In 2002, the federal education policy was revised under President George W. Bush, in what became known as the No Child Left Behind law. The Bush policy had a laudable premise: to measure and thus shed light on achievement gaps along racial and ethnic lines. But the law fell so short in actual practice that the Obama administration has granted waiver after waiver to states, as well as nudging state policy through its Race-to-the-Top grants.

So what do the confluence of the Louisiana gubernatorial election and congressional action putting an end to No Child Left Behind have to do with North Carolina?

Both signal the centrality of and the impending intensification of the great debate over state-level education policy.

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the federal government extended its influence over education policy. Now, however, says U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, a consensus has emerged to “move decisions about whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing out of Washington DC and back to states and communities and teachers…”

It will take some time to sort out the federal-state relationship following the 2016 presidential election. But at least two elements of the House-Senate agreement point to major decisions that will confront North Carolina policymakers.

First, tests and accountability. The annual standardized-testing feature of No Child Left Behind would remain. But states, rather than the federal government, would have authority to decide academic goals, to evaluate schools’ progress, to respond to the needs of poor, black, and Latino students, as well as young people with disabilities. How will our state’s pilot on testing change the testing landscape? Should North Carolina, thus, revisit the simplistic system of giving schools a letter grade? Is the third-grade reading mandate adequate? Can lawmakers articulate a credible alternative for occupying the accountability space the federal government is leaving?

Second, early childhood education. The federal legislation would offer $250 million annually in competitive grants to the states for preschool programs for low-income children. With SmartStart, More at Four, and childcare subsidies, North Carolina had vaulted to national leadership in the field. Now, a new report from the New America think tank assesses the states’ progress on birth-to-3rd grade policies and places them in three categories: walking, toddling, and crawling. North Carolina ranks among the toddling states, behind the walking states, ahead of the crawlers. Will North Carolina compete for preschool grants — a state that won Race-to-the-Top grants, but also a state that declined federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage for poor families?

The Republican-dominated state government has yanked education policy in a different direction than under the three preceding Democratic administrations in Raleigh. If Senator Alexander is correct about the consequences of the down-shift in federal involvement, decisions made in Raleigh will take on an even greater significance.

While you hardly hear a word about schools in either the Democratic or Republican presidential nomination contests, you have a right to expect a full-throated debate over education in the 2016 races in North Carolina for governor, lieutenant governor, superintendent of public instruction, and the state legislature.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.