Federal Opinion

Secretary Spellings’ Unintended Legacy

By Eugene W. Hickok — December 08, 2008 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Secretary Spellings’ Unintended Legacy


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
The School to Workforce Gap: How Are Schools Setting Students Up For Life & Lifestyle Success?
Hear from education and business leaders on how schools are preparing students for their leap into the workforce.
Content provided by Find Your Grind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
The Key to Better Learning: Indoor Air Quality
Learn about the importance of improved indoor air quality in schools, and how to pick the right solutions for educators, students, and staff.
Content provided by Delos

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal What the Federal 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Actually Says
The bill would restrict federal funds for lessons on LGBTQ identities. The outcome of this week's election could revive its prospects.
4 min read
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida House Republicans advanced a bill, dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, to forbid discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, rejecting criticism from Democrats who said the proposal demonizes LGBTQ people.
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in Tallahassee on March 7, 2022. Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law was a model for a federal bill introduced last month.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal Fed's Education Research Board Is Back. Here's Why That Matters
Defunct for years, the National Board for Education Sciences has new members and new priorities.
2 min read
Image of a conference table.
Federal Opinion NAEP Needs to Be Kept at Arm’s Length From Politics
It’s in all our interests to ensure NAEP releases are buffered from political considerations and walled off from political appointees.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal Feds Emphasize Legal Protections for Pregnant or Recently Pregnant Students, Employees
The U.S. Department of Education has released a new resource summary related to pregnancy discrimination in schools.
2 min read
Young girl checking her pregnancy test, sitting on beige couch at home.
iStock/Getty Images Plus