School & District Management

School Choice Advocates Worried About Spellings

By Caroline Hendrie — November 30, 2004 7 min read

With Margaret Spellings’ nomination to succeed Secretary of Education Rod Paige, some school choice advocates are worried that their cause will get crowded out in President Bush’s second term by a heightened focus on test-based accountability.

As they lament the imminent loss of a secretary they considered a champion, many proponents of private school vouchers and other nonconventional educational options are withholding judgment on how forcefully Ms. Spellings is likely to support choice. But others, especially voucher proponents, are openly voicing concern that she will prove a much less passionate advocate than Mr. Paige.

Clint Bolick

“Rod Paige was a tough act to follow, but certainly the president could have chosen someone who has a strong track record on school choice, and Margaret Spellings does not,” said Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based organization that pushes for school voucher programs nationally. “We are anxious to hear some concerted assurance that Secretary Spellings [would] pursue school choice and use her position as a bully pulpit for school choice as her predecessor did.”

Other proponents of choice said anxiety about Ms. Spellings’ embrace of their cause was misplaced. While some complain that Ms. Spellings was no friend of vouchers as President Bush’s education adviser while he was the governor of Texas, others say she has supported charter schools and worked hard to help pass federal legislation earlier this year to set up a voucher program for the District of Columbia.

“Some people make the mistake of thinking that if somebody doesn’t wake up every morning thinking about choice, that they’re not a supporter,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a research and advocacy group in Washington that backs both vouchers and charter schools.

And Nelson Smith, the president of the Washington-based Charter School Leadership Council, voiced unalloyed support for Ms. Spellings’ nomination, calling her “a strong supporter of charters, both in Texas and in her position in the White House.”

But others aren’t so sure. A recurrent concern is that Ms. Spellings—reflecting Mr. Bush’s priorities—will push harder to carry out the standards-based testing and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act than to expand the law’s current choice components or make the existing ones a success.

“It’s not that they are hostile to school choice, it’s just that they don’t think it’s very important,” Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, said of Mr. Bush and Ms. Spellings. By contrast, he added, Mr. Paige had an affinity for school choice “in his gut.”

“I don’t think it’s in Margaret’s gut,” Mr. Finn said, “but I would love to be shown that I’m wrong.”

Questions in Texas

President Bush announced Nov. 17 his selection of Ms. Spellings, his top domestic-policy adviser, to lead the Department of Education. (“President Picks a Trusted Aide for Secretary,” Nov. 24, 2004.)

In part because she has intentionally avoided the limelight since coming to Washington with Mr. Bush four years ago, Ms. Spellings is known best among some choice supporters for her work on the issue in Texas while serving as then-Gov. Bush’s education aide from 1995 to 2000.

Voucher supporters in Texas unsuccessfully tried during the 1990s to win passage of a series of bills that would have provided private school tuition aid for students, culminating in a narrow loss in the legislature in 1999. Ms. Spellings was involved in some of the negotiations with voucher advocates at the time.

Mr. Bush was on record as favoring vouchers, but he was not viewed as a vigorous supporter, recalled Chris Patterson, the director of research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based research organization that favors vouchers and charter schools. “The groups … and individuals who were really active in supporting vouchers at that time did not include the governor’s office,” she said.

Jay P. Greene, a researcher and voucher supporter who was then teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, described Ms. Spellings as “an extremely loyal soldier” who “pretty much does whatever the president wants.”

“It became very clear that the governor in the end really didn’t want this bill, because he wanted to run for president on the back of accountability and not choice,” said Mr. Greene, who is now a senior fellow in the Davie, Fla., office of the New York City-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “So when then-Governor Bush didn’t want vouchers, she didn’t want vouchers.”

Several analysts said that record has led to some lingering hard feelings against Ms. Spellings among Texas voucher advocates—whether justified or not.

“There are people in Texas who feel that Margaret undermined the effort, but I have absolutely no evidence of that,” said Matthew Ladner, the state projects director of the Alliance for School Choice.

And some voucher champions see Ms. Spellings’ influence in the Bush administration’s decision to acquiesce in the deletion of provisions in early versions of the No Child Left Behind Act that would have included private schools among the transfer options available to students in public schools that fail to meet standards.

Pragmatism Cited

Nina Shokraii Rees

Ms. Spellings’ stance on vouchers in Texas and in Washington does not suggest she is down on school choice, but instead reflects her political pragmatism, said Nina Shokraii Rees, the assistant deputy secretary in charge of the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement.

“If you have the votes, if you have the game plan in place, she will support it,” Ms. Rees said in an interview. “But at the same time, she’s not going to advocate for things that are unrealistic.”

Ms. Spellings “was a big reason why the D.C. school choice initiative became law,” said Ms. Rees, a longtime voucher supporter who worked in the 1990s at both the Institute for Justice and the Heritage Foundation, two Washington organizations that back school choice. Ms. Spellings also “helped me get this position,” she said.

Ms. Spellings, whose appointment as secretary requires Senate confirmation, was not available to be interviewed.

Among other duties, Ms. Rees’ office supervises the federally financed pilot voucher program for the District of Columbia. It also runs several programs that aim to foster the growth of charter schools, which are publicly financed schools of choice that are typically independent of local school districts.

Arguably the office’s most prominent role has been to implement the school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which require that students in underperforming public schools be given the chance to transfer to other public schools and to receive publicly financed tutoring. As backers of school choice fret over Ms. Spellings’ emphasis on the No Child Left Behind law, Ms. Rees argued, they should remember how large a role school choice plays in the law.

Indeed, Mr. Smith of the Charter School Leadership Council said he viewed Ms. Spellings’ focus on accountability as a plus for the charter sector.

Besides supporting charter schools, he said, “she is also known as an architect of the Texas accountability program and a strong proponent of standards, and those things are an excellent combination from our perspective because we believe that charters are all about standards and accountability.”

Action in the States

In the view of the Manhattan Institute’s Mr. Greene, promoting choice is clearly second fiddle in the Bush administration to accountability, but that shouldn’t be a major concern to those looking to open up the education marketplace.

“Most of the action for school choice is really in the states,” Mr. Greene said. “So I am not alarmed by this appointment at all.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, a former domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton who now is the director of education policy at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, speculated that some of the grumbling about Ms. Spellings stems from the perception that she is more politically moderate than many voucher activists. Mr. Rotherham, a Democrat who strongly supports charter schools but opposes vouchers, also suggested that she “may be catching spears” for President Bush, who he contended “is not a big choice guy.”

It is too early to know with precision the policy tack Ms. Spellings will take as she seeks to “balance emphasis on choice-based measures and accountability-based measures,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“This administration is exceedingly disciplined about policy, and anyone who knows the policy direction they’ve established isn’t going to be speaking for the record,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to wait and see.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as School Choice Advocates Worried About Spellings

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