Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings faced tough questions from Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill this week over her department’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act and its administration of the Reading First program.
In two hearings on President Bush’s proposed $56 billion Department of Education discretionary budget for fiscal 2008, members of the appropriations subcommittees that oversee education spending said that amount wouldn’t be enough to help their districts meet the demands of the federal school law.
“If the administration is going to get my vote on reauthorization, they’re going to have be a whole lot more flexible in terms of what they mandate on the states, and I’m going to have to be convinced that this time around the administration isn’t going to walk away from its financial commitment,” Rep. David R. Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and its education subcommittee, told Secretary Spellings on March 12.
‘More Being Taught to Read’
The $1 billion-a-year Reading First grant program, which has come under fire in a series of reports by the Education Department’s inspector general, the most recent of which was released earlier this month, was the subject of particular scrutiny this week. The inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., found that the department appeared to favor certain commercial reading programs in the grant approval process and did not take appropriate steps to prevent conflicts of interest among contractors and subcontractors, and may have inappropriately nudged at least two states toward selecting a particular reading assessment. (“‘Reading First’ Contractor Neglected Bias Rules,” March 14, 2007.)
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending, said at a March 14 hearing before his panel that such tactics violated language in the No Child Left Behind law that prohibits the federal government from infringing on the states’ rights to determine what to teach.
In writing the NCLB law, Congress “insisted the federal government would not dictate to local school districts, to state schools, what their curricula [would be],” Sen. Harkin said. But in applying for Reading First grants, states found that “the clear signal was you have to do what the department or the White House says, or you’re not going to get the funding,” he said.
Secretary Spellings said that she had embraced all of the inspector general’s recommendations for improving the Reading First program, and that the officials whose actions were questioned in the reports were no longer working at the department.
“I am hugely concerned about the credibility of the department,” Ms. Spellings said at the Senate hearing. “But I also know that more students are being taught to read. This is a huge investment in reading instruction.”
Sen. Harkin said later that he did not expect to eliminate funding for the Reading First program in next year’s spending bills. He said Congress would continue to monitor the program.
“We’ll see if any pressure is being put on any states” to adopt specific programs, he said.
Lawmakers also questioned specific policies implemented under the NCLB law.
Their criticisms revealed complaints that some rank-and-file members of Congress are hearing from their constituents as Secretary Spellings and the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees—Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.— begin to build support for renewing the law, which is up for reauthorization this year.
Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., the ranking Republican on the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Education Department’s budget, questioned whether the law should require students who are recent immigrants to be counted in calculating a school’s annual progress. The department has taken a hard-line approach in favor of counting such students recently.
“We need to have a much more realistic approach,” Rep. Walsh said. “We can’t be punishing the schools because they cannot make these kids fluent in one year.”
Secretary Spellings said she expected the reauthorization bill would alter the way schools are required to assess and measure the progress of English-language learners. She also said that such students would be helped by the administration’s proposal to expand so-called growth models, which allow schools to get credit under the law for improving individual students’ performance on state tests, not just for bringing all students to proficiency.
Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., a former public school teacher and principal, said the Education Department’s lack of flexibility in enforcing the law’s requirement that teachers be “highly qualified” had “forced good teachers to change positions because their certification is not exactly what is required by their teaching assignment.”
To make his point, he asked Secretary Spellings whether she had teaching certification or had ever worked directly in a school.
“What in your background makes you a highly qualified secretary of education?” he asked.
Ms. Spellings noted that she had been a substitute teacher in Texas—a position which did not require certification—but had majored in journalism and political science.
“My background preparation for this job is in the policy arena,” she said.
During the Senate subcommitee’s hearing, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked the secretary whether the department had considered changing the law’s sanctions for schools that fail to meet achievement targets to differentiate more clearly between schools with one or two limited problem areas, and those that have consistently struggled on nearly all accountability indicators since the law’s enactment.
Ms. Spellings said the administration and Congress could consider a “more nuanced” approach to accountability beyond the current “pass-fail” system.
Even those who continue to fully support the NCLB law attacked President Bush’s education budget request for proposing to cut or provide only level funding for programs that they said would help schools meet the law’s goals.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said state tests had found that Montana needed to focus its efforts on Native American students, but that the administration had proposed cuts to federal impact aid, rural education, and Indian education.
“I’m a whole-hearted defender … of No Child Left Behind. I absolutely believe in this program,” he said. “But I’m getting to the point where I just can’t defend the kind of actions that don’t recognize [that] once you identify the problem, [you] direct the resources to the problem.”
Rep. Obey and Sen. Harkin both said education programs could look forward to a considerable boost this year.
“Let me make quite clear this budget for education is going to be increased significantly by this subcommittee,” Rep. Obey said of the House panel.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Spellings Is Grilled on NCLB, Reading First