National Press Club

K-12 education forum examines policy and leadership consequences of fall election

September 1, 2016 | By Jean Gossman |

The K-12 public education sector enjoyed about 10 years of an “era of good feelings” following enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, said recently appointed Maryland State Board of Education President Andy Smarick during Tuesday’s National Press Club Newsmaker forum on education issues, these days many stakeholders are questioning where public education authority should rest and shifting their thinking on key issues.

As the nation moves into implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act(ESSA), signed last December by President Barack Obama, education has reached “a turning point” where “the federal role is shifting,” said Caroline Hendrie, executive director of the Education Writers Association (EWA), who moderated the K-12 portion of the forum. She added that “tensions are coming to the fore that cut across party lines,” citing support for charter schools.

Indeed, the time of “clear [partisan] demarcations” on K-12 education policy issues “seems to be over,” Smarick said. For example, Smarick pointed out Democrats are showing more unity in support of education vouchers than are Republicans, in contrast to earlier years, while more rural and suburban Republicans are questioning education choice programs.

But clear differences on education issues are plainly seen in the two major parties’ presidential nominees, panelists observed. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has put forth her education agenda and has “a 40-year record of fighting for children,” according to Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, noted that Clinton has asked NEA, parents, and the business community for input on evidence-based education strategies.

On the other hand, Republican nominee Donald Trump’s education agenda is yet to be revealed. Smarick, also a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and formerly an education official in the George W. Bush administration, said he is not supporting Trump and has “never gotten to Aug. 30 [of a presidential election year] without knowing” his party nominee’s education plan.

Down-ballot, in the event of a Senate flip to Democratic control, “ESSA could look more like NCLB” than Republicans might like, Smarick said. He pointed out that if the Senate changes hands Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Clinton’s primary elections challenger, could chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

If the Senate remains in GOP hands, there could be “significant pressure” to have ESSA waivers or lower accountability standards in a nod to Republican pressure for federalism in government, according to Jeffries.

State and local races are “critical” to public education, said Eskelsen Garcia. Smarick agreed, noting that in most states governors appoint state board of education members. He added, “State policymakers are going to be driving the train” in policy implementation.

Smarick also speculated that the next administration’s education secretary “probably” would be a current or former governor in light of the ESSA-driven shift of education authority back to states. “Governors are the ones dealing with these issues.”

The National Press Club Newsmakers Committee and EWA sponsored the forum.