Senate passes bill to restore states’ education powers

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, seen visiting Summerville High School in this September file photo, said she supports the Senate overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act. “Education is an issue that is best handled on the state and local level,” Spearman said.

Seeking to restore authority over education decisions to the states, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act on Wednesday.

The new bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act, reduces the federal government’s authority over state-level standardized testing and expands funding and support for charter schools. The House of Representatives previously passed the bill, and President Barack Obama has said he intends to sign it into law.

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman praised the bill’s passage, saying in a prepared statement that education is an issue “best handled on the state and local level.”

“The days of students and schools being measured on one high-stakes test are behind us, and we can implement an accountability system that uses multiple measures that gives better information to our students, parents and educators,” Spearman said.

Originally signed into law with bipartisan support under the George W. Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act set the stage for federal education policy for nearly 14 years. The law requires states to develop standards and assessments for certain subjects in certain grades. Schools that fail to make sufficient progress on the tests are labeled as “at-risk” or in need of improvement, and are required to submit improvement plans.

Under No Child Left Behind, parents are allowed to transfer their children out of schools that fail to meet standards two years in a row, in some cases causing student populations to dwindle in struggling schools. When a school repeatedly fails, states can take drastic corrective actions, including replacing the staff or closing the school entirely.

Proponents said that No Child Left Behind helped put the pressure on states and school districts to improve failing schools, but critics said it set unrealistic goals, labeled too many schools as failing and led to an undue emphasis on standardized testing.

If signed into law, the Every Child Achieves Act would still require annual testing in reading and mathematics, and it would still require states to take action to improve their worst-performing schools. But states and districts would have increased authority to set their own goals, rate schools on their own metrics and take their own forms of corrective action.

South Carolina’s two Republican U.S. senators parted ways on the vote, with Sen. Lindsey Graham voting in favor of the bill and Sen. Tim Scott voting against it. Earlier in the year, Scott attempted to pass an amendment that would allow federal Title I funding to follow low-income students rather than be allotted to low-income schools, but the measure failed. He said in a prepared statement Wednesday that the final bill did not do enough to broaden school choice options.

“Too many children, especially those living in poverty, continue to be denied access to a quality education simply because of their ZIP code and socioeconomic status. This cannot continue,” Scott said. “By embracing school choice and fundamentally reforming education, we can reduce poverty, strengthen communities and unleash our students’ true potential.”

Previously in the House of Representatives, Republican Reps. Joe Wilson and Tom Rice joined Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn to vote in favor of the bill after incorporating revisions from the Senate. Republican Reps. Mark Sanford, Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy and Mick Mulvaney voted against it.

The bill also would set aside additional funding and create stronger federal support for the creation of charter schools. The bill notes that charter schools serve a racially and economically diverse student population and that “there are more than one million student names on charter school waiting lists.”

Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, said the act will be “critical” to the growth of charter schools because it provides seed money to replicate and expand innovative charter schools.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.