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Spellings discusses education policy with Obama's Secretary of Education John King

Margaret Spelling, Future of education
John King Jr., former secretary of education under the Obama administration, and Margaret Spellings, UNC system president and former secretary of education under the Bush administration, respond to questions from UNC students (right) regarding the current state of education in the U.S.

Students, academics, community members and political practitioners gathered in Wilson Library’s Pleasants Family Assembly Room Saturday to discuss the current state and the future of education policy in North Carolina. 

Every semester, UNC’s Institute of Politics hosts a series of seminars on a variety of topics through its Fellows Program. Each fellow has the liberty to choose that week’s seminar topic and then invite guests for discussion. This semester’s fellows are former U.S. Secretary of Education to President George W. Bush and UNC System President Margaret Spellings and N.C.Attorney General Josh Stein. 

Spellings led last week’s panel discussion along with John King, former secretary of education to President Barack Obama.

Lucy Russell, junior and president of the IOP student advisory board, said the seminars provide a forum for open communication and maintaining an ideological balance is a crucial aspect of the Fellows Program.

“We want (the seminars) to be more intimate environments for students to engage in these conversations,” Russell said. “We can promote discourse about some of the most pressing political issues we’re facing.” 

Last week’s seminar led the kickoff to the IOP’s weekend-long Civic Ideas Summit, entitled “Disagreement is the Lifeblood of Democracy: Facilitating Civil Discourse on Campus.” 

Bipartisanship remained a large focus of the panel’s discussion, which also included topics of both higher education and K-12 policies, as well as voting issues surrounding education.

“I think it’s important for all communities to view education as an important issue,” King said. “As students are voters, as they’re citizens, they should know those issues.”

King also emphasized the importance of putting pressure on policymakers to be more “equity-minded.” Although King cited Spelling’s work on the No Child Left Behind Act and access to broken-down data as progress within education policy, he said there are still “huge gaps in attainment” for low-income students, students of color, English learners and students with disabilities. 

“The students who are most in need get less access to resources, less access to effective teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to school counselors, less access to postsecondary transition planning,” King said.  

He added that it's critical to intentionally recruit students from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“Nationally, flagships serve a lower percentage of low-income students and students of color than other state institutions,” King said. “I’m certain that kids growing up in the affluent suburbs of Charlotte or in Chapel Hill know about UNC-Chapel Hill, but students who are in the rural parts of this state — are they getting good information about what courses they should be taking, how they get to Chapel Hill. Are Chapel Hill recruiters and students coming to visit their high school so they see a potential future at Chapel Hill?”

Spellings, who announced Friday that she would resign as UNC system president, said she hoped to see a “college-going culture” grow within the state, where “every single person in North Carolina can go to college and do so affordably and conveniently.”

During her tenure as president, Spellings helped develop a strategic plan called Higher Expectations, which she said in a 2017 op-ed in The News & Observer aims to increase graduation rates and reduce achievement gaps for low-income and first-generation students. 

“Our institutions had to adopt individual institutional performance agreements, and many of them said, ‘We’re going to work hard to get more rural students,’” Spellings said. “In Chapel Hill’s case that was one of the metrics they chose, and they went out and worked hard on recruiting them and nurturing that student demographic.”

Spellings said one priority she has for the legislative session is the funding of summer school as a part of next year’s budget. 

“I wanted to continue to build out our data dashboard, so that we know as much about the enterprise as we can so we can be smart about how we manage it,” Spellings said. “I want to make sure we’re using financial aid in the most powerful way possible, and so I’m going to seek some incentives for people to complete on time.”

Sarah Brown, one of two moderators for Saturday’s event and a 2015 UNC graduate, said she thinks the University is facing a lot of the same challenges as other public universities across the country.

“There are a lot of interesting trends going on with respect to college affordability, all the way down to cultural issues, like Silent Sam, free speech issues on campus. Those are questions that are vexing campuses nationwide,” Brown said. “I think it’s important for UNC students to think about how UNC fits into that context.” 

Katie Reilly, who also served as a moderator for the panel discussion and is a 2015 alumna, said the IOP seminars are particularly important for increasing civic engagement. 

“It’s important to be having these conversations on a college campus so close to the midterms, especially given how important voter turnout is for young people and for college students,” Reilly said. “Hopefully having those conversations always — but especially at this time of year — ends up mattering to people and sparking those discussions.” 

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