Education Week Staff Writer Michelle R. Davis sat down with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on Jan. 9 in the secretary’s office at the U.S. Department of Education. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: You have two kids. … Tell me a little bit about how you expected that to influence what you did as secretary.
A: Having a real-time connection with the schools and, interestingly, this year I went through the whole college selection with my oldest daughter, who is now a college freshman, and [I] still obviously have a public school child, who is now in 8th grade. It was influential as [White House] domestic-policy adviser, and now even more so as secretary. I have a feeling for what parents experience when they go into a school and hear about, you know, AYP [adequate yearly progress] and HQT [highly qualified teacher] and Read 180 and Success for All. [It’s a] “what the heck are they talking about” kind of thing, and I’m the secretary of education. I mean obviously I know what they’re talking about, but only because I’ve had years of practice.
Q: One of the things you were dealing with when you came in was this state—some call it a rebellion, that was going on against No Child Left Behind. … How do you think these flexibilities [you have announced] have impacted that? Is there still a lot of dissent out there?
A: Two important things happened last year in that regard. One is this sensible, workable-approach deal, that we’re about results, not process. … But I also think the other thing that importantly happened last year is we started to get some of the most important kind of early returns on No Child Left Behind. I think especially in the summer, the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] data was a real wind at our back. … I fully believe … that without No Child Left Behind, we wouldn’t have done this, we wouldn’t have paid attention as we have.
Of course, I take issue with the whole “there’s a rebellion” [view]. Fifty states are in good standing at the moment, and were all last year with this department. Federal funds and resources are flowing around the goals of No Child Left Behind. …
Q: Do you have any concerns with the reauthorization percolating, [that] there is this segment of conservative Republicans in Congress that have a lot of concerns about the law and seem to be gathering some momentum?
A: Again, … the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding’s pretty tasty. … I do not have a lot of people calling up here through my [legislative] shop saying the sky is falling on either side of the aisle. … Nobody’s calling me and saying we’ve got to repeal No Child Left Behind. Nobody.
Q: What things do you think … are going to be incorporated in the reauthorization?
A: Some of that is emerging. … That’s why I did the pilot, … the flip of offering supplemental services before public school choice. … I’ve laid the groundwork for getting some information that might be useful to the Congress as they evaluate whether to do that or not. That’s one. Likewise, … the districts in need of improvement, the deal I’ve done in Chicago and other places around [the country]. The whole high school math-science thing. …
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about [Hurricane] Katrina. … When did you really realize how significant of an impact this was going to have on schools?
A: I remember on Tuesday morning [Aug. 30], after watching TV all night, calling [the Education Department] and—you know I can’t tell you what I said— …. [saying] “Oh heck,” you know, this is serious business. …
Obviously, I went down there fairly quickly, to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the stories and just the trauma that these educators felt … and yet [they had] this whole can-do spirit. It was very, very emotional. You can’t hear stories and a situation like that without feeling, “What can we do?”
Q: Is [the federal hurricane-aid package, which wll send federal money to both public and private schools] a first step to a national voucher [plan]?
A: We have always said that this is a one-time emergency-aid package both for private schools and for public schools. We’re paying virtually the entire cost of educating students this year, when our normal federal investment is about 9 percent. Both are highly unusual.
Q: The hurricanes [Katrina and Rita] must have knocked a few things off your “to do” list. What are some of the things you had hoped to do?
A: They’re still on our to-do list. Obviously during the fall, the back-to-school season, we started doing this, the whole high school [initiative], math-science, high school, high school, high school. … We’re still for it, but we got a little sidetracked on our way to New Orleans.