Secretary Spellings' Unintended Legacy

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When U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings leaves office along with her Cabinet colleagues, President George W. Bush surely will heap praise upon his good friend and adviser who oversaw his prized domestic accomplishment: the No Child Left Behind Act.

From day one of the Bush years, Margaret Spellings was deeply engaged in No Child Left Behind. She oversaw its creation from her perch as director of domestic policy for the president, often overriding or avoiding advice coming from Mr. Bush’s first secretary of education, Rod Paige. When she assumed the post of secretary herself in 2005, she became the very visible leader on education issues, seeking to distance herself somewhat from the policies and practices established by Paige. She has fared better in the press than her predecessor. But she leaves a mixed legacy that, with time, may come back to haunt both her and the president.

During President Bush’s first term, the Department of Education earned a reputation for being strident in its implementation of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Word went out before the ink was even dry on the new law in January 2002 that there would be no waivers and no whining. Secretary Paige was committed to seeing the president’s education vision through. And the truth is that the law itself does not contain a whole lot of wiggle room for state and local education leaders to leverage.

It is one thing to tell state and local leaders that you understand their concerns and will work with them to deal with those. It is quite another to say they can do something the law does not authorize them to do in place of what the law mandates that they do.

As time went by, however, Paige and his team (on which I served first as undersecretary and later as deputy secretary) became more understanding of the challenges state and local leaders were confronting as they sought to meld their existing education accountability systems with the demands of the federal law. He frequently sought to respond to requests for relief, but was rebuffed at every turn by Spellings’ White House domestic-policy staff.

Denied the relief they sought, state and local education leaders would complain to Congress, and Congress gradually felt obliged to blame Paige for the way he was implementing the law. Surely, there were other reasons for Paige’s troubles as secretary of education. But he understood fully the needs and concerns of those in the field trying to make things work under NCLB. Spellings, in my view, simply denied him the chance to meet those needs and concerns.

When Margaret Spellings became secretary of education, she sought immediately to soften the impact of the law and to emphasize flexibility over strict compliance, often citing Paige’s unforgiving style. She found ways to give troubled urban districts the freedom to exercise discretion in the implementation of the law’s school choice and tutoring provisions. Recognizing the stringent accountability regime established under the law, and the legitimate complaints surrounding how those provisions create large number of schools not achieving “adequate yearly progress,” she sought to establish opportunities for states to implement alternative accountability systems based on such factors as improvements in student achievement.

No one doubts the sincerity with which Secretary Spellings sought to respond to the concerns and complaints she heard from the field. Surely she came to understand how her predecessor might have felt. But there is all the difference in the world between offering waivers and flexibility and establishing alternatives to the mandates of the law. It is one thing to tell state and local leaders that you understand their concerns and will work with them to deal with those. It is quite another to say they can do something the law does not authorize them to do in place of what the law mandates that they do. The secretary has always had the authority to do the former, but has no authority to do the latter. The fact that she did and got away with it says something about the secretary’s ability to muscle her way forward, as well as just how deep-seated the objections to the law are and how much people are willing to look the other way when they like what is being allowed to happen.

As the Bush administration prepares to leave town, the No Child Left Behind law remains in place and subject to reauthorization by a new administration and Congress that might very well view its future differently than did their predecessors. And they might look to the precedent established by Secretary Spellings to fashion a strategy that the law’s critics would embrace, thereby robbing her and President Bush of the education legacy they sought to leave behind.

Both President-elect Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress have complained that the No Child Left Behind Act is underfunded. Mr. Obama has expressed support for the ideas of accountability and reform in education, but has cited problems with the law. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have heard almost eight years’ worth of complaining about it from their constituents. Times are tough with the economy sinking, and therefore many state and local governments, including school districts, are being pinched like never before. It wouldn’t be surprising to see President Obama announce to a receptive Congress and a relieved education establishment that he will lift the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind and permit states to pursue their own strategies, by instructing his secretary of education to exercise the kind of authority Margaret Spellings said she possessed.

Citing the failure to fully fund No Child Left Behind, the nation’s economic condition, and the need to exercise compassion for those asked to do the difficult without the money they need to do it, the new president could put an end to No Child Left Behind, if only for the time being, and then seek a different, perhaps softer strategy to reform America’s schools.

Secretary Spellings, unwittingly perhaps, opened the door for just such a scenario to take place.

Vol. 28, Issue 15, Pages 24-25

Published in Print: December 10, 2008, as Secretary Spellings' Unintended Legacy
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