Corrected: This story describes Education Sector as a strong supporter of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The Washington-based think tank does not take positions for or against policies.
On a chilly day in December, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings strode into a 4th grade Maryland classroom where the teacher and a handful of students sat on the floor working on fractions. Without hesitation, despite her crisp business suit and heels, Secretary Spellings sank to the carpet to sit among the students.
The move looked unplanned and natural during her appearance at Guilford Elementary School in Columbia, a suburb between Washington and Baltimore, to announce a new special education policy. After a few minutes, she rose to leave, telling the instructor, “Thank you for being a teacher.”
It’s hard to imagine most of her predecessors as education secretary, regardless of how in tune they were with children, flopping to the floor with the students. It’s just a small example of the way Ms. Spellings, 48, has put a more engaging and accessible face on the U.S. Department of Education during her first year at its helm.
She took over at the department from Secretary Rod Paige on Jan. 20 of last year, becoming the first mother with school-age children to hold the post. During President Bush’s first term, she served as his White House domestic-policy adviser and a close confidante.
As secretary, Ms. Spellings inherited a department stung by a scandal over federal payments to the commentator Armstrong Williams for promoting the Bush administration’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, without disclosing the arrangement to the public.
Ms. Spellings also faced a mounting rebellion among states unhappy with what many legislators and officials saw as the over-prescriptive and underfinanced mandates of the law. And she couldn’t have foreseen that seven months into her tenure, a vast natural disaster would overshadow much of her first-year agenda.
Despite the unexpected, Ms. Spellings said last week that she was pleased with the year’s progress, particularly when it came to the No Child Left Behind law.
“I would not do anything differently last year,” she said in an interview in her office on Jan. 9, the day she and President Bush marked the fourth anniversary of the school improvement law. “I think we’re in the right place.”
Even before being sworn in as secretary, Ms. Spellings had vowed to bring a common-sense approach to enforcing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. An overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first adopted in 1965, the law seeks to raise all students to academic proficiency in core subjects by the 2013-14 school year. Schools must meet annual academic goals in student achievement, as measured by state tests, or face a series of sanctions.
During President Bush’s first term, the Education Department held to a hard line on compliance with the law, to the dismay of some state and local officials and front-line educators, who viewed the law’s ambitious goals and demanding accountability provisions as unworkable. Several states have sought to limit the law’s impact. The overwhelmingly Republican Utah legislature passed a measure last year declaring that its own laws would take precedence over the federal law, and Connecticut sued the department, contending that it had imposed illegal unfunded mandates under the law.
A Practical Approach?
Against that backdrop, and early jousting over the law’s reauthorization, Ms. Spellings has steadily rolled out what she calls “flexibilities” to adapt the law to the realities faced by educators.
Those shifts have included a pilot program to allow up to 10 states to use “growth models” that track individual students’ progress, and permitting an additional 2 percent of students—roughly 20 percent of students with disabilities—to meet grade-level standards more slowly than was required. Ms. Spellings is also allowing some districts labeled “in need of improvement” to offer students tutoring before school transfers. The law calls for the order to be the other way around.
Ms. Spellings has said that new flexibility on the testing of English-language learners under the education law is to come soon.
She’s tackled some fairly big issues and managed to, if not solve them, at least mollify people.”
The regulatory tweaking has made a difference, said Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the 1.3 millon-member American Federation of Teachers, which has launched a campaign titled “NCLB—Let’s Get It Right.”
The secretary seems more willing than her predecessor to engage in dialogue with critics, Ms. Cortese and others say. In July, at the AFT’s national conference, she sat down in a talk-show-style question-and-answer session with union President Edward J. McElroy before an audience of 2,500 not-always-friendly AFT members.
“She’s tackled some fairly big issues and managed to, if not solve them, at least mollify people,” Ms. Cortese said. “There’s a noticeable difference in access and openness.”
Secretary Paige had been the superintendent of the Houston school district and was passionate about the No Child Left Behind law’s goals, but he often seemed uncomfortable in the public eye.
Mr. Paige also burned bridges with some education groups, particularly the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which he once offhandedly referred to as a terrorist organization. Throughout President Bush’s first term, it was rumored that behind the scenes, someone in the White House—Margaret Spellings—was calling the shots on major education policy.
In her role as secretary of education, Ms. Spellings operates differently from her predecessor, observers agree.
“She has a personal way of connecting with people and showing that she wants to make it work,” said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools. When asked if that ability differed from Mr. Paige’s style, Ms. Grasmick rolled her eyes and said, “Just look at my body language.”
Ms. Spellings says it was critical to reach out.
“We are not closing the achievement gap [in schools] at the Department of Education,” she said in the Jan. 9 interview. “It is these principals, these teachers, who are on the front lines doing it every day.”
But not everyone sees the new NCLB flexibility in the same light. Minnesota state Sen. Steve Kelley, a Democrat, co-chaired a National Conference of State Legislatures task force that released a report criticizing the law about a year ago. He said some of the Education Department’s new rules come with complex requirements that make it difficult, in some cases, for states to actually use them.
“She’s putting a kinder, gentler face on what is still fundamentally the same policy,” he said.
Others worry that Ms. Spellings is straying from the core goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. “You can’t ease concerns by giving away the store,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank that strongly supports the law, and a former White House aide to President Clinton.
She’s putting a kinder, gentler face on what is still fundamentally the same policy.”
Ms. Spellings quotes Oprah Winfrey, keeps a baseball signed by former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda in her office, and often refers to the No Child Left Behind law as her third child. She has a way of using humor and her hometown Houston accent to charm her critics. In her July appearance at the AFT conference, shortly after Tom Cruise’s infamous couch-jumping stunt on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Ms. Spellings warmed up the crowd by saying, “If my knees were a little better, I’d try getting up on the chair.”
Her congeniality is combined with a keen political savvy she has built up over years, starting in Texas as a top lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards and later as then-Gov. Bush’s education adviser.
Those who’ve dealt with her say Ms. Spellings is plain-spoken and tough, without offending.
“I find her extremely honest, sometimes blunt, but not in an ugly way,” said G. Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.
Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, an influential Washington organization of corporate chief executives, recalled that at an October meeting with business leaders, Ms. Spellings dared them to do something about their concerns regarding math and science education.
“She said, ‘You guys are just talking to each other,’ and … challenged them to get out in their communities and talk to parents, students, and educators,” Ms. Traiman said.
Secretary Spellings has been willing to step into the fray from the start.
Just days into her new job, Ms. Spellings made headlines for criticizing an episode of the federally funded children’s public-television show “Postcards from Buster,” in which the title character, an animated rabbit, was shown visiting two actual Vermont families headed by lesbian couples.
In a letter to the Public Broadcasting Service, Ms. Spellings asked for the return of federal grant money used to make the show and said many parents wouldn’t want their children “exposed to the lifestyles portrayed.”
“I think it was a mistake,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington.
“It allowed her to be painted in some circles as an extremist, which I don’t think is accurate,” said Mr. Petrilli, who worked in the department for Secretary Paige and briefly for Ms. Spellings.
However, she may have viewed the outcome of the flap as a success, said Mr. Rotherham—especially if her goal was to shore up a conservative support base. “By tackling an allegedly gay-friendly bunny rabbit, she scored some points” with social conservatives, he said.
Also during her first few months, Ms. Spellings moved to strengthen the department internally.
She launched an investigation into the arrangement with Armstrong Williams and added new management controls on public relations efforts. She also overhauled the department’s structure, creating new positions and increasing the number of top managers that reported directly to her.
Then, in late August, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, with the storm and floodwaters washing away schools and scattering families and educators around the country. Ms. Spellings swung into action. She formed a hurricane “strike team” made up of senior Education Department officials and sent them fanning out to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.
She reached out to education groups, seeking ideas on how to help the estimated 372,000 K-12 and college students displaced by Katrina.
Mississippi Superintendent of Education Hank M. Bounds said Ms. Spellings’ support was reassuring and crucial. Noting the accessibility of the secretary and her staff members, Mr. Bounds quipped: “We received so many offers of help from the department that it was almost … harassment.”
New Challenges Ahead
Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s large urban school districts, lauds Ms. Spellings for thinking creatively.
“Completely unlike her predecessors, she was willing to have the department play a direct role in helping rebuild” Gulf Coast schools, he said. In past natural disasters, “it was the assumption from the get-go that the main player would be [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. … Secretary Spellings really took the opposite tack.”
It’s the first time a significant amount of disaster money is flowing to schools through the Education Department instead of FEMA, Mr. Casserly said. On Dec. 30, President Bush signed into law a bill providing $1.6 billion in hurricane-relief money for education, though FEMA will still play the leading role in rebuilding school facilities.
But some observers say Ms. Spellings and the Bush administration have used the hurricanes to promote private school choice. With a provision to provide federal money to private schools for this fiscal year only, supporters of private school vouchers are claiming an incremental victory.
Mr. Rotherham of Education Sector faulted Republicans and Democrats for resurrecting a voucher battle while schools waited for federal aid. “It could have been done in a less politically charged way,” he said.
Ms. Spellings says the private school aid is not a voucher program.
“I completely reject that,” she said last week, adding: “It would be hard to suggest that there were not legitimate needs that the families whose kids attended private schools [had].”
The focus on making the No Child Left Behind Act more flexible and the impact of the hurricanes have pushed aside other issues Ms. Spellings had hoped to tackle during her first year. Most notable was an effort to expand the federal law’s high school testing requirements, which went virtually nowhere in Congress.
Ms. Spellings said she plans to resurrect the high school initiative this year and to press for more math and science accountability. And as the scheduled 2007 reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act draws nearer, there will be a renewed focus on modifying the current law to provide more flexibility. It will come down to weighing priorities, she said.
“It is a balancing act,” she said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”