RALEIGH — The No. 2 official of the U.S. Department of Education lauded North Carolina’s educational efforts Thursday while also promoting diverse school enrollments amid ongoing civil rights investigations of the Wake County school system.
In an interview Thursday, U.S. Deputy Education Secretary Tony Miller commended North Carolina for undertaking “significant kinds of reforms and investments in education.” Miller cited how the state is increasing its high school graduation rate, developed an alternative method for assessing student performance under the federal No Child Left Behind program and has slowed college tuition growth.
“We still as a country and a state are not where we need to be, but I think we need to celebrate and recognize the leadership and courage where it’s making a difference,” Miller said.
But not enough of an educational difference is being made in North Carolina’s education system, said Wake school board member John Tedesco.
“We still have large pockets of failure in North Carolina where many of our children are not being well served,” said Tedesco, a candidate in Tuesday’s Republican runoff for state schools superintendent.
Miller was in Raleigh for a roundtable discussion at William Peace University on the challenges facing higher education in the Triangle. Other attendees at the closed-door meeting included N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson, Wake County schools Superintendent Tony Tata and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.
Miller is the latest senior Obama administration official to visit North Carolina, a battleground state in this year’s presidential election.
North Carolina has received $470 million in competitive federal grants and been exempted from the strictest requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Going forward, Miller said it will take a unified effort of K-12 and higher education leaders, the business community and local elected officials to get more students to graduate from high school and get college degrees.
“While I want to commend and applaud the successes that’s been had in North Carolina, it’s also about how we do ever more with a greater sense of urgency,” he said.
The Education Department has also put a great deal of scrutiny on Wake County for eliminating socioeconomic diversity from its student assignment policy. Last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized the prior Republican school board majority and said he was encouraged by election results that shifted board control to Democrats.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has two ongoing probes of Wake and is monitoring compliance with an agreement in a third investigation.
Miller didn’t directly comment on what the Wake school board has done so far this year, such as asking staff to develop a new student assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year that includes a diversity component.
“When you get to the dynamics then of diversity here locally, we think embracing that diversity and using it to the advantage of developing 21st century skills is in the best interests of students,” Miller said. “How that plays out with specific policy really is not (in) the best interest of the federal government to opine on, but we are going to be looking at what’s the impact on kids and how prepared are they going to be.”
Tedesco said what federal investigators should see is how in the past few years Wake has increased its graduation rate, narrowed the achievement gap and reduced the number of suspensions.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Tedesco said.