‘No Child Left Behind’ changes would shift power back to S.C. on education

South Carolina will have more say about school standards in the state after the Senate voted 85-12 to pass a bipartisan education bill on Wednesday that overhauls the controversial No Child Left Behind legislation.

While state educators welcomed the decision to move away from the one-size-fits-all federal approach, most of South Carolina’s Republican delegation in Congress voted against the bill, charging it did not go far enough to keep Washington out of local classrooms.

South Carolina’s funding would increase from about $28.5 million to $36.3 million, according to Congressional Research Service estimates based on federal education data. But the state’s education advocates say that more significantly the new law shifts the responsibility for improving schools back to the educators who know their schools best.

“We are the ones working within the state and for the students and parents, so we would be the best decision makers about the challenges we face within the classroom,” said Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association.

Meant to close the achievement gap among students of different backgrounds, the No Child Left Behind law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 allowed the federal government to play a major role in telling states how to run schools and how to improve and evaluate their schools’ performance.

“I think we’re going to see educators respond very well to this. (No Child Left Behind) was a tremendous stress on students and teachers, and parents have been upset about this,” said South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.

“The goal that we would reach every child was good, but the way to get there was unrealistic,” she said.

The Every Child Succeeds Act moves toward allowing South Carolina, along with other states, to determine its own timeline and metrics for measuring improvement in its more than 1,250 public schools. Some things would stay the same, such as annual math and reading testing, but what happens as a result of the test scores would no longer be up to the federal government.

South Carolina education advocates applauded the shift away from test scores as the main indicator of school success.

“We’re very pleased about this flexibility that will keep us from having to ask permission from Washington and wait for their response,” Spearman said. “In the past we’ve been judged just on how well students do on one day on one test, but now we can also base it on things like ROTC” – Reserve Officer Training Corps – “and leadership programs, and training students to be good citizens.”

Other markers would now be taken into account, such as graduation rates, student engagement and more creative work such as student projects and presentations.

The new bill, which easily cleared the House of Representatives by 359-64 last week, was supported by most House Republicans, including South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson.

Wilson, a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement after the vote that he was grateful that the new bill “stands up for conservative values by reducing the federal role in K-12 education system.”

Democrats, including the only South Carolina Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Clyburn, were united in supporting the bill despite its fairly conservative focus on giving control back to the states. The legislation would create an annual $250 million competitive grant program to support states in planning and expanding preschool programs for low-income children, a priority for the Obama administration.

All votes against the bill, 64 in the House and 12 in the Senate, were from Republicans who said it did not go far enough in eliminating Washington’s reach into the state’s classrooms. The no votes included South Carolina Reps. Trey Gowdy, Jeff Duncan, Mark Sanford and Mick Mulvaney, and Sen. Tim Scott.

Sanford said he opposed the bill because it “grew the federal footprint in education” by increasing federal spending.

“This bill is essentially a rewrite of No Child Left Behind and actually goes further by creating additional federal programs that dictate to states, and parents, what and how their children will be educated,” Sanford said in a Facebook post explaining his vote.

Gowdy, Mulvaney and Duncan did vote to approve the House version of the bill in July, but the final version walked back some of the changes they had supported.

Scott said he voted against the legislation because while the bill is a “good step forward, it does not include strong enough school choice provisions.”

State educators who have struggled with testing requirements for over a decade say a step forward is good enough for now.

“They believe the federal government has no role at all in education,” Spearman said about the South Carolina Republicans who voted against the bill.

“They are all for flexibility but wanted it to go further. While I understand that, this is a huge step in the right direction,” she said.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill Thursday.

For now, South Carolina education advocates say they’re mainly looking forward to relief from oppressive testing and getting to evaluate their own progress.

“After the last 14 years it’s been testing and testing, not on the emphasis of allowing teachers to just teach. It’s time to turn the page,” Hampton said.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen