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.

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.

Education, News

New North Carolina law allows charter flexibility for entire school district

A new North Carolina law offers an entire school district the kind of flexibility that’s currently available to the state’s charters, WUNC reports. 

The station notes that the new state law—creating a so-called “Renewal School System”—will impact schools in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools district.

Last year, the district counted 16 of its 35 school already participating in the state’s “Restart” model, allowing charter-like flexibility for struggling schools. Now, the new law will allow school district leaders to adopt those rules in all schools.

The new model comes with some traditional school district leaders seeking the kind of leeway over curriculum, calendar and staffing granted to charters, which are also publicly-funded schools.

More from WUNC:

Rowan-Salisbury School administrators say being a “Renewal School System” will allow them to make more efficient and effective decisions across the district. Last school year, 16 of the 35 schools in the district had restart status, which qualifies the district as having the highest percentage of restart schools of any district in the state.

Superintendent Lynn Moody says it’s been tough handling a district where about half the schools had the status and half didn’t.

“It was a matter of trying to manage two different districts,” Moody said. “We had one set of rules for our restart schools, and one set of rules for our more traditional schools.”

That meant two separate budgets, and sometimes different calendars in schools that served the same families. North High School, a restart school, adjusted its schoolyear to a year-round calendar, but a nearby middle school that fed into the high school did not have restart status, and was on a traditional calendar.

“We’re placing a burden on our families in that area of our community on how they’re going to get their babies to school every day,” said Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon, adding that many families in that community depend on public transportation to meet their day-to-day needs.

The new status will give all the schools in the district the same flexibility. That will allow them more options when it comes to budgeting, curriculum, hiring non-traditional teachers, and giving students more instruction time.

Superintendent Moody pushed for the new designation. She says she hopes being relieved of standards and restrictions placed on traditional public schools will allow the district to innovate and improve educational outcomes across the county.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education

Report: How Kennedy’s retirement may jeopardize public school access for undocumented children

Much of the discussion surrounding Justice Anthony Kennedy’s impending retirement—a liberal Waterloo if ever there was one—has centered around its impacts on abortion rights and marriage equality.

But a new Slate report delves into the equally concerning possibility that the loss of Kennedy’s swing vote may also endanger public education access for undocumented children, an idea that’s certainly got its fair share of supporters among some conservatives and, possibly, Trump administration leaders like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Put simply, Trump’s replacement for Kennedy is likely to side with other conservative justices in tossing or weakening Plyler v. Doe, a pivotal 1982 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed public education for children, regardless of their immigration status.

Given the anti-immigrant fervor cooked up in recent years during Trump rallies, this certainly doesn’t stray too far from the president’s base.

From Slate:

It’s hard to imagine a class of persons in America who have had a harder shake of late than undocumented children, who have been separated from their parents both at the border and after immigration raids well within the nation’s interior. The mental image of children being pried from their parents and thrown in cages is underscored by heart-wrenching stories about the devastating effects these kids can experience after separation. Promisingly, a federal district court in San Diego has held that the administration’s family separation policies “shock the conscience” and thus violate substantive due process, ordering the administration to reunite families within 30 days.

But even if these egregious efforts to make life miserable for immigrants don’t succeed, there are other crises on the horizon. Republican lawmakers’ attempt to deter immigration by punishing children is nothing new. Consider U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent statement that it was a “school decision” or a “local community decision” whether a public school should call Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report undocumented students. The notion that our nation’s educators ought to check on students’ immigration status may sound anathema to progressives (and was widely panned by civil rights groups), but the secretary’s comments were hardly an outlier. Alabama, for example, passed a law in 2011 that would have required all public schools in the state to identify undocumented students.

Alabama couldn’t enforce its law, though, because of a 1982 Supreme Court case called Plyler v. Doe. Indeed, Plyler is what ultimately led Secretary DeVos to backtrack on her comments, too.

Plyler itself involved a Texas law that authorized local school districts to refuse enrollment to undocumented children. In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the law as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Critical to the court’s reasoning was its concern that “imposing disabilities on [a] child is contrary to the basic concept of our system that legal burdens should bear some relationship to individual responsibility or wrongdoing.” “Obviously,” the court continued, an undocumented child’s presence in America is a choice over which she “can have little control.” The court thus concluded that no “substantial state interest” justifies “deny[ing] a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that [a state] offers to other children residing within its borders.”

With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s pending retirement, however, it is an open question whether immigration and children’s rights advocates will be able to wield the sword of Plyler v. Doe much longer. Much of the discussion of Justice Kennedy’s retirement has centered on the uncertainty around more well-known precedents (such as Roe v. Wade) and more recent ones (such as Obergefell v. Hodges and Fisher v. University of Texas). But a case like Plyler is a forceful example of other less-known decisions that may also be in jeopardy. Plyler itself was already a bit of an outlier (it applied heightened scrutiny to the challenged Texas law even though no suspect class or fundamental right was implicated), and the four justices in dissent included moderates such as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

If Justice Kennedy is replaced by a rock-ribbed conservative, it is not difficult to imagine the newest justice joining a 5–4 majority to reverse Plyler. After all, while some conservatives deserve credit for opposing the president’s family separation policies, the notion of denying undocumented children access to public school is much closer to the heartland of the Republican agenda. A recent poll showed that roughly half of Americans oppose admitting undocumented kids to public schools. So when five justices barely blink before casting aside a decades-old precedent governing public sector unions, a case like Plyler that enjoys a younger pedigree can hardly rest assured.

The repercussions of such a holding would go beyond access to free public education—itself a right of inestimable importance in helping to acculturate and open opportunities for so many undocumented children. Overturning Plyler would also undermine the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, because one of the eligibility requirements for DACA is that a child currently be enrolled in school (or have graduated from high school). If red states were free to deny children that privilege, DACA itself would lose relevance for a substantial number of undocumented children.

There is no silver lining to this story; there is only a call to alarm. When the president is willing to pry undocumented children from their parents and throw them into cages, no one should be surprised when others in his party try to throw them out of public schools. Until now, the only thing stopping them was Plyler v. Doe, but Justice Kennedy’s retirement puts that case in real jeopardy. And that means the future of hundreds of thousands of innocent children in America is, too.