Education, News

State Board of Education’s Bill Cobey will not seek another term as chairman

Superintendent Mark Johnson (left) and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey (right).

Bill Cobey, the longtime North Carolina Republican who’s clashed of late with members of his own party in the N.C. General Assembly and Superintendent Mark Johnson, will not seek another term as board chair when his term ends in September.

“I’ve done it for five and a half  years,” Cobey told Policy Watch Friday. “I think that’s plenty long enough.”

Asked whether he intends to remain on the board for the duration of his term, which ends next March, Cobey declined to comment.

The former chair of the state Republican party and, at one time, a GOP hopeful for governor, Cobey has a long history in North Carolina politics and leadership. He served one term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, sat as athletic director for UNC-Chapel Hill, and directed former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s campaign in North Carolina.

But in recent years, Cobey—who was appointed to the State Board of Education by former Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013—has often been at odds with the public education decisions of the Republican-controlled legislature and the state superintendent.

Johnson and members of the board battled in court this year over sweeping new powers given to the GOP superintendent by the legislature last year, with both sides, bizarrely, claiming victory in a state Supreme Court decision in June. The decision seemed to confirm Johnson’s new powers.

Cobey says the state board is now prepping new rules that “define our relationship with the superintendent,” even as Johnson’s office took swipes at the board chair in a terse statement last month.

The shakeup in board leadership will come at a tumultuous time for the board, which has long led the state’s K-12 system with the superintendent.

The board’s former vice chair, A.L. “Buddy” Collins stepped down in March to focus on his campaign for a local county commission seat in Forsyth County.

Board member Eric Davis, who has also clashed with Johnson and state legislators, became vice chair in Collins’ stead. It’s unclear who will step into Cobey’s role as chairman after his departure.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers rankled some when they voted down two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s long-pending nominations for expired state board seats last month.

Legislators re-confirmed current board member Reginald Kenan, but voted down confirmation for J.B. Buxton, a former education adviser for ex-Gov. Mike Easley, and Sandra Byrd, a retired UNC-Asheville associate professor and provost. Lawmakers provided no reasoning in denying a seat for Buxton.

The legislature has allowed the Democratic governor’s state board nominations to bog down for months, while two members, Tricia Willoughby and Wayne McDevitt, continue to serve in seats that expired in March 2017.

Cobey said he’s tried to stay out of the confirmation controversy.

“I understand the disappointment of those appointees,” Cobey said. “However, we have two experienced, well-qualified current board members in Wayne McDevitt and Tricia Willoughby. As long as they are willing to serve, the education of public school students is well served.”

Education, News

Exploring “education deserts” — How proximity to universities impacts Americans

If you have the time, check out an absolutely fascinating, interactive report on “education deserts” this week from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The report delves into areas of the country where potential students find themselves at least an hour’s drive from the nearest institution of higher education, drawing connections to poverty and inequality.

The analysis found that more than 11.2 million Americans, or about 3.5 percent of the adult population, live at least an hour’s drive away from a public university. Their maps highlight portions of eastern and western North Carolina for their gaps too.

While such studies are relatively new, they may highlight some of the persistent obstacles to economic advancement in poorer parts of the country.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

For most college students, place matters. And closer is often better. In 2016, almost 40 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen reported that their colleges were less than 50 miles from their homes, a proportion that has held since the 1980s. Studying close to home, family, and community can be even more vital for the roughly one in four undergraduate students who are considered nontraditional — those who are older, have child-care duties, work full time, or attend college part time.

But what happens when there’s no college nearby? That’s still the case in substantial pockets of the country. Areas where it’s difficult for placebound students to get to a college — commonly known as education deserts — have drawn more attention in recent years, but there’s still much to be learned about their breadth and their impact.

We wanted to learn more. If colleges and policy makers fail to consider the impact of education deserts, they will fail to engage a large pool of potential students. That may reinforce the inequality that higher education hopes to solve.

The first step in eliminating education deserts is finding them. Existing research into education deserts is so limited that there isn’t a broadly accepted definition of what constitutes one. So The Chronicle ran its own analysis. We started by identifying almost 1,500 two- and four-year public colleges. (For our analysis, we excluded institutions with an acceptance rate lower than 30 percent: These colleges wouldn’t be considered viable options by many local students.)

Like the authors of several recent studies, we then defined the areas each college serves. To do so, we calculated driving distance: If students who live or work off campus could drive to it within 60 minutes, we considered them in range.

We then looked to census block groups, geographical units for which the U.S. Census publishes useful demographic data. Block groups beyond any college’s driving radius were considered education deserts.

So how many adult Americans live in education deserts? The Chronicle’s analysis found that 11.2-million adults, or 3.5 percent of the adult population, live more than a 60-minute drive from a public college.

Areas of the country that qualify as education deserts under our definition are largely rural and predominantly in the West. Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana, in that order, have the greatest percentage of adults living more than 60 minutes from a college.

Commentary, Trump Administration

Editorial: Trump’s embrace of Putin would offend Jesse Helms

For many Americans, the late Jesse Helms is what they think of when they think of North Carolina. And for progressive North Carolinians, there are many, many good reasons to find an association with the utterly intolerant GOP figure objectionable.

That may be one reason you’re not likely to hear many kind words about the late senator on these pages, but Capitol Broadcasting Company has published an editorial this morning that asks: What would Helms, a staunch anti-communist, think of President Donald Trump’s gushing embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin this week?

Based on Helms’ comments in 2001, the longtime North Carolina Republican likely wouldn’t have had much nice to say about Trump, even as members of the national GOP today grapple with how to respond to the president’s disastrous trip to Helsinki this week.

From the Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial:

There has been much hand-wringing among conservatives on just how to respond to President Donald Trump’s embrace of Russia’s Vladimir Putin even as he distanced himself from his own government’s fundamental institutions.

To those who might be looking for guidance on how to react, they need not look any further than Jesse Helms, the godfather of the nation’s modern conservative political movement.

Much has changed since that pre-9-11 time. Most folks (except for our president) are 18 years to the wiser. They know that Putin’s government ordered and financed the meddling and attempted sabotage of the 2016 elections. All aimed to at least build distrust in our electoral process.

In 2001 then-President George W. Bush traveled to Europe for a series of meeting with allies and other international leaders, including Putin. Bush’s embrace of Putin wasn’t quite the gushing idolization that Trump expressed this week. But for the time, it was effusive. Helms, the longtime Republican senator from North Carolina and diehard anti-Communist, was alarmed by Bush’s initial chummy assessment of the Kremlin’s leader who’d been an ex-KGB operative.

“He’s an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values,” Bush said at a June 16, 2001 news conference with Putin.

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”

Helms wouldn’t have any of it. Just a few days later, when then Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms didn’t mince his words of concern and caution. See and hear what Helms said.

Helms’ said:
“I would be misleading you if I did not admit to raising my eyebrows at the assertion that Mr. Putin is ‘trustworthy.’ A ‘remarkable leader,’ he was called. And a man with whom we ‘share common values.’ Now, I criticized officials from the previous administration for using nearly those precise words to describe Mr. Putin. And I was dumbfounded to hear them from mine.

“For we must not forget that under Mr. Putin’s leadership the press has once again felt the jackboot of repression. Arms control treaties obligations remain unfilled and violated. Dangerous weapons technologies have been transferred to rogue states and Georgia’s and Ukraine’s security has been threatened in brutal, indiscriminate military trampling in Chechnya remains unabated.

“For these reasons Mr. Putin is far, in my judgment, far from deserving the powerful political prestige and influence that comes from an excessively personal endorsement by the president of the United States.”

Helms’ stern warning about Putin proved right. Apparently those who seek to portray themselves as inheritors of his political legacy, like Trump, want more to benefit from Helms image than heed his warnings.

Bush eventually came around to Helms’ perspective. Earlier this year, in the wake of the revelations of the Russian meddling, he told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo that Putin “is a very aggressive person who wants to reinstate Soviet influence even though the Soviet no longer exists.”

Jesse Helm’s prescient words 18 years ago may still echo in the Capitol.

On this, at least, his would-be heirs in Congress should perk up their ears.

Legislature, News, Trump Administration

“Don’t come back,” N.C. lawmaker tells Trump after Putin summit

Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake

“Don’t come back,” a North Carolina legislator told President Donald Trump after his widely-criticized summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday.

Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat and Afghanistan veteran in the U.S. Army Reserve, hammered the president in a much-shared Tweet Tuesday.


The tweet prompted a reaction from those on both the right and the left.

WRAL has more:

As of noon Tuesday, the viral post had more than 1,800 retweets and 4,500 likes.

“I guess it struck a nerve and resonated with folks,” Martin said.

He explained that he is not currently on active duty and is therefore not precluded by the Uniform Code from making disparaging comments about the Commander in Chief.

“This tweet was not at all in my capacity as a member of the U.S. Army,” he said.

Martin said Trump’s comments were particularly disturbing to “folks of my generation.”

“I came of age at the very end of the Cold War,” he explained. “As a cadet, I was learning Soviet tactics and Soviet weapons.”

He also noted that the vast majority of replies to his tweet expressed agreement, and many also urged Martin to take legislative action. As a state lawmaker, not a member of Congress, there’s little action he can take.

“That says to me that there’s a frustration in the public with both Democrats and Republicans who have condemned the president’s conduct in Finland,” he said, “but have not in the public’s view taken action they believe would be appropriate.”

Reached for comment on the tweet, North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse was uncharacteristically low-key.

“It’s over the top, as much of the commentary from the left about the president often is,” Woodhouse responded. “One can disagree with the president without calling for his exile.”

On Twitter, the disagreements, though few, were more vehement.

Education, News, Trump Administration

Why Trump wants to diminish the U.S. Department of Education

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Since his election, President Donald Trump has made no secret of his plan to diminish the federal government’s role in public education, a big-ticket item for conservative reformers who balked at Obama-era education initiatives like Common Core.

That’s why it came as little surprise last month when the president proposed a merger between the federal education agency and the U.S. Department of Labor.

To explain Trump’s proposal, which has the support of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the nonprofit Brookings Institution offered some good background Monday on what’s come before for the Department of Education and what’s likely to come next.

Read on:

Republicans have opposed the Department of Education’s existence since its establishment in 1979. Recently, Republican voters’ backlash against the Common Core State Standards has reignited the Republican Party’s efforts to reduce the federal government’s role in education. In the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Trump campaigned to terminate Common Core and the Department of Education to restore local control in education. Even though this proposal is unlikely to become law, Trump is motivated to demote the Department of Education in order to advance his campaign promises and engage in “position taking” with Republican voters on a salient policy issue before the midterm election this November.

In October 1979, President Carter signed the Department of Education Reorganization Act, which established the Department of Education as a separate, Cabinet-level agency. Republicans opposed the enactment of this law because of their opposition to the federal government’s role in education and, generally, the growth of the federal government. President Reagan and Republican legislators introduced legislation to re-merge or abolish the Department of Education with no success. Over time, Democratic and Republican administrations, especially the George W. Bush administration, expanded the Department of Education’s influence in education.

During the Obama administration, the federal government’s role in education re-emerged as a salient policy issue for Republican voters because of their strong disapproval of Common Core. Common Core is a set of K-12 education standards that 45 state governments initially implemented in 2010 and 2011. Americans, especially Republicans, increasingly opposed Common Core because its curriculum standards constrained teachers, frustrated parents, and exemplified—in their view—the Obama administration’s overreach into local education. Based on Education Next’s annual poll in 2016, Republicans (53 percent) somewhat or strongly disapproved of Common Core to a greater extent than Democrats (32 percent). Interestingly, only 34 percent of Republicans somewhat or strongly disapproved of the academic standards when the term “Common Core” wasn’t included in the description of the policy issue.

Although state governments adopted Common Core, Republican legislators in Congress introduced and enacted legislation to prohibit the Department of Education from incentivizing state governments to adopt Common Core. From the beginning of the Obama administration in the 2009-10 congressional session, there were no introduced or amended bills that explicitly proposed to prohibit the federal government’s advocacy for Common Core in the 2009-10 or 2011-12 sessions, three bills in the 2013-14 session (H.R. 5, H.R. 4008, S. 2967), and six bills in the 2015-16 session (H.R.5, H.R. 524, H.R. 2803, S.73, S. 1177, S. Con. Res. 11). In December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which, in part, prohibits a federal government employee or officer from influencing, incentivizing, or coercing state governments to adopt the Common Core or other multi-state K-12 academic standards.

Over the same time period, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation to abolish or entirely defund the Department of Education. There were no introduced or amended bills that proposed to abolish or entirely defund the Department of Education in the 2009-10 session, one bill in the 2011-12 session (S. 162), one bill in the 2013-14 session (H.R. 5394), three bills in the 2015-16 session (H.R. 1950, H.R. 2281, H.R. 6119), and two bills in the 2017-18 session (H.R. 899, H.R. 1510).

By the end of President Obama’s second term, the Republican Party was clearly frustrated with the extent of the Department of Education’s reach and the Obama administration’s support of Common Core. In this context, this policy issue became a litmus test for the 2016 Republican presidential candidates during the primary election in summer and fall 2015. Republican candidates positioned themselves on Common Core to signal not only their position against the federal government’s overreach in education, but also their position for reducing the size of the federal government. During the primary election, then-candidate Trump advocated on Twitter to repeal Common Core (although this is not something the federal government had control over, then or now) and eliminate the Department of Education to reduce the federal government’s role in education. During the general election, candidate Trump pledged in his Contract with the American Voter to “end” Common Core and restore local control in education.

In order for Trump to successfully merge the two departments, it is necessary to enact a new law amending the original Department of Education Reorganization Act. To enact such a law, Trump will need a majority of votes in the House of Representatives and 60 votes in the Senate. (In the standard lawmaking process, 60 votes are required in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. If Republicans choose to amend the act through the budget reconciliation process, only a majority of votes in the Senate is necessary.) In the current session, there are only 51 Republicans in the Senate. The response of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher’s union in the country, is a reliable indicator of Democratic support for education-related legislation. In contrast to their ambivalence on Common Core, the NEA’s strong dismissal of this proposal suggests that Democrats in the Senate are unlikely to vote for the proposal. Given the insufficient number of Republican votes in the Senate, this proposal is unlikely to become law in the current congressional session.

Why, then, would President Trump propose this merger in the first place? The most likely answer is that the proposed merger is a case of “position taking,” an elected official’s public declaration for or against a salient policy issue to demonstrate policy congruence between the incumbent and her voters. According to political scientists David Mayhew and Phillip Edward Jones, voters are more likely to reward incumbents for the positions they take on policy issues, rather than the enactment of a policy or a policy’s outcomes. Thus, proposing a merger that is unlikely to happen may still be valuable for Trump and the Republican Party during a midterm election year; this position is consistent with Republican voters’ preference for a smaller federal government in general, and a smaller role for the Department of Education in particular.

Regardless of whether this proposal becomes law, Trump’s introduction of this plan may help increase his approval rating among his Republican base, mobilize Republican voters in the upcoming midterm election, and increase the likelihood the Republican Party will retain majority control of Congress.