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New education law is encouraging
Richard Woods state school supt
Richard Woods is Georgias state school superintendent.

Last month, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — now called the Every Student Succeeds Act — which ended No Child Left Behind when the president signed it into law.

While I would have preferred more time to review this legislation before it passed, I am pleased that with the reauthorization of the ESEA, Congress saw what we at the state and local levels have seen for years: We test way too much, and the federal government has taken over education, which is a constitutional obligation of states and local districts. I can assure Georgians of this: Our process, as we develop a plan to submit to the feds, will be fully transparent and based on your feedback.

As I stated early in my term, we must balance accountability with responsibility. That is why several months ago I called for a testing audit to determine ways we could eliminate unnecessary testing at the state and local levels. This is an issue explicitly recommended in the new law, which we will gladly continue.

Over the coming months, my team and I will look carefully at this new legislation and move forward with some of our already-implemented actions to provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability. Now that the federal government has provided states with flexibility, we as a state must act in the interests of our students and teachers.

There are some specific areas of the legislation that I fully support, and others that are part of our own strategic plan. It:

• Gives block-grant funding that consolidates many programs, allowing states to spend money where they feel it’s most needed;

• Prohibits the U.S. secretary of education from forcing or even encouraging states to pick a particular set of standards (including Common Core), so we can create standards that are Georgia-grown and Georgia-owned without fear of punishment from the federal government;

• Emphasizes the importance of arts education; and

• Encourages integration of the arts to increase participation in STEM courses and to move schools toward STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

I am encouraged by this new legislation because, when I was at the school level, I experienced firsthand the impact of NCLB as an elementary school principal. Though NCLB drew our attention to certain groups of students and introduced more accountability, unrealistic expectations and a one-size-fits-all approach to education ensured its failure.

At the state level, I experienced the impact of the waiver process as state school superintendent. NCLB was so restrictive and out of touch that the U.S. Education Department years ago started the process of granting waivers to states. Though labeled as “Georgia’s” waiver, the process was one of the most undemocratic processes I’ve ever witnessed. USED would grant one thing to one state but would deny it to another. A group of USED representatives — none of whom were from Georgia and none of whom were elected — would “yea” or “nay” our requests. We were at the mercy of their whims and it felt like we were being forced to become the U.S. Department of Education – Georgia Division. If it had not been for serious chatter at the federal level around reauthorization of ESEA, I likely would have taken a different approach to our waiver request. That is also why I included a cover letter reiterating that we would review our options after one year.

Some may argue that Race to the Top gave Georgia a little more leeway in charting our own educational direction. Even though we at the state level had significant influence, boundaries and barriers that hinged on hyper-accountability models were set through our waiver and the application process. USED representatives were still able to “yea” or “nay” our individual requests.

With NCLB, Georgia was in the back seat while the feds drove Georgia’s educational direction — we often swerved off the road and got lost. With our waiver and Race to the Top, it appeared the feds were finally in the back seat, but they became our back-seat drivers — shouting directions, telling us how fast to go, where to turn and when to pull over.

We have been given the opportunity to chart our state’s educational plan and ensure it is truly a Georgia plan formed by the feedback and participation of all Georgians. I am confident that together, we can craft a vision that best serves Georgia’s students and makes us a national education leader. I’ve seen it in the eyes of our children, the efforts of our teachers and my conversations with parents.

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