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Every Student Succeeds Act

Trump Means More Leeway for States Under ESSA, Says S.C. Chief Spearman

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 15, 2016 2 min read
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South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman says she is “very excited about the possibilities” for her state’s education policy under President-elect Donald Trump, especially because she thinks her state will have more freedom under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Spearman, a Republican elected in 2014, thinks that a Trump administration will give states more freedom to interpret things like ESSA spending requirements than President Barack Obama’s administration has so far. She also thinks the president-elect’s administration will hew more closely to lawmakers’ intent when they passed the law in 2015. And she believes that Trump will help boost the growth of school choice programs around the country, including in her state—Spearman expressed an interest, for example, in participating in Trump’s $20 billion federally backed choice initiative should lawmakers approve it.

“Education is best handled at the state and local level,” Spearman said in an interview.

Trump has pledged to give local communities more power over education. And given the number of states in which Republicans now control both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship, Spearman’s view could become much more prevalent and important in the coming months and years. Ballotpedia has a map of such “trifectas” after the election last week—note that Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming also have or will Republican superintendents of education in 2017.

Spearman attended the Republican National Convention in July and has supported Trump’s candidacy because, among other reasons, she believes that he will reduce the overall role of the federal government in education. You can watch a video of our interview with Spearman below:

Spearman still wants the U.S. Department of Education to conduct oversight on some issues, but also supports “making sure we don’t have jobs there that could be handled at the state level.” (In some cases, thanks to ESSA, Trump may not be able to do take action on certain education-related issues even if he wants to.)

“I have no problem with them looking at the U.S. Department of Education” as a target for “streamlining,” Spearman told me. “I’m sure there are some funds there that could be redirected. But I do believe there is a role for the department to play.”

One area where she thinks Trump can be particularly helpful is on career and technical education and job training. Right now, for example, South Carolina is expanding its apprenticeship programs for students, and she believes Trump can lead by example: “Success can be reached in our country through many different pathways. And he is certainly an example of that.”

When we spoke to Spearman at the RNC, she did express one concern about Trump’s candidacy: the rhetoric the president-elect used on the campaign trail and its potential impact on children. When we asked her about this issue after the election, she said Trump’s victory speech on Nov. 9 assuaged her concerns on that front.

“He showed ability to use the type of language and explanations that are good for our children and us as educators,” she said.

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