Spellings Seeks to Cast Her Glow Over NCLB

By David J. Hoff — January 07, 2008 7 min read
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In her three years as U.S. secretary of education, Margaret Spellings has been a celebrity contestant on “Jeopardy!,” a guest on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and an occasional subject of Washington’s best-read gossip column.

Above all, though, she’s been the nation’s leading spokeswoman for the No Child Left Behind Act.

With one year left on the job and Congress stalled over reauthorizing the 6-year-old federal education law, the task of promoting and defending it is tougher than ever.

But Ms. Spellings plans to continue her plain-spoken pitch for the NCLB law, which is one of President Bush’s biggest domestic-policy accomplishments and something he wants to be part of his legacy.

The public supports the law “when you explain No Child Left Behind is about getting kids to be on grade level,” Secretary Spellings said in a recent interview in her office. “Is it an unreasonable thing to expect your kids to be on grade level? Is it impossible? Is it a bad message?”

Those are rhetorical questions that the veteran Bush aide has asked often in speeches here in Washington and around the country since taking the helm of the Department of Education at the beginning of the president’s second term. In the past year, she has traveled to her home state of Texas, to Alaska, and to four other states promoting the law. She also has spoken in half a dozen other states on topics such as higher education reform.

"I have a real affinity for people who grind through this stuff day after day." —U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, on working on legislation with Capitol Hill aides.

Overall, her supporters and some of her opponents suggest Ms. Spellings has been an effective spokeswoman for the law, which has been criticized for giving the federal government too much control over the states’ testing and accountability decisions.

“She wants to get something done, and she’s determined that the reforms be a success,” said William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington watchdog group that supports the law. “She has been ready to stick to her guns.”

“She’s articulate and attractive in all senses of those words, and she knows the policy so she can engage on the substance,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank. Mr. Rotherham, a Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, supports the law’s goals and focus on accountability.

‘Celebrity’ Secretary

Like the six men and one woman who preceded her as education secretary, Ms. Spellings has the primary job of promoting the president’s education agenda. But Ms. Spellings has pursued that assignment in unconventional ways.

In 2006, she competed on the game show “Jeopardy!” during one of its programs featuring celebrities. (She finished second to the actor Michael McKean.) Last May, she talked about the NCLB law’s reauthorization with Jon Stewart on the comedian’s satirical talk show. (“I haven’t met a parent yet who said: ‘Count me out. Count my child out,’ ” she told him in between his jokes.)

Her name appears occasionally in The Washington Post‘s “Reliable Source” column, including noting her lunches about town with first lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and other high-profile women in the administration. Last month, a separate column in the newspaper mentioned the surprise party her husband, Robert Spellings, organized for her 50th birthday on Nov. 30.

“It doesn’t hurt anything to be plugged in to what’s going on,” Ms. Spellings said of her TV appearances during the Dec. 18 interview with Education Week.

But her strength as secretary, Washington insiders say, is her knowledge of K-12 policy and her ability to promote the Bush administration’s agenda.

On Capitol Hill, Ms. Spellings has a reputation for knowing the fine-grained details of the laws she is charged with administering.

Plus, her friendship and partnership with President Bush, for whom she has worked continuously since his 1994 gubernatorial campaign in Texas, ensure that Ms. Spellings can be trusted to deliver on her promises, said Vic Klatt, who is the staff director for Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee.

“You know that she speaks for the administration, and you know she speaks for the president,” Mr. Klatt said. “I can’t tell you how important that is when it comes to dealmaking time.”

Mr. Klatt added that the secretary’s experience as a lobbyist in Texas and as education adviser to then-Gov. Bush means she understands how to work with lawmakers to settle big issues and then with their aides to handle the details of drafting legislation.

“I have a real affinity for the people who grind through this stuff day after day,” the secretary said.

The combination of her status in the administration and her in-depth knowledge of No Child Left Behind has put Ms. Spellings in a critical role for determining the future of the legislation, which President Bush signed into law six years ago this week. As Mr. Bush’s chief domestic-policy aide during his first term, Ms. Spellings worked closely with Congress in 2001 to craft the NCLB law.

Dealmaker or Dealbreaker?

Since becoming secretary in 2005, Ms. Spellings has repeatedly said she would not compromise any of the central tenets of the law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Chief among them are its requirements that states assess students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school and use the test scores to determine whether schools and districts are making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward ensuring all students are proficient in those subjects.

She also insists that schools still be required to report test scores and be held accountable for the progress of students in a variety of groups, including racial and ethnic subgroups, as well as students with disabilities and English-language learners.

If anything, she has been too strident in her defense of the law in the past year, said Mr. Rotherham, who was an education adviser to President Clinton.

When Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the senior Republican on the House education committee, released a draft NCLB bill for discussion purposes, she criticized it in a high-profile back-to-school speech.

In its proposal to consider measures other than test scores in the accountability system, the draft would have created “big loopholes” that would have considered schools to be making AYP even if their students weren’t on track for meeting the goal of universal proficiency, she said in a letter to Reps. Miller and McKeon.

In October, President Bush said he would veto any NCLB-reauthorization bill that would ease accountability requirements.

The hard-line tactics were unnecessary and may be one reason why the House effort has stalled, Mr. Rotherham said. “

They could have shut [the process] down at any point” later with a threat to veto a specific bill, he said. “Why do that right out of the gate? Why not see if it doesn’t get anywhere?”

Now, Congress will seek to restart the debate over the law this year while much attention is focused on the presidential election, leading many political experts to doubt whether the reauthorization effort will succeed.

Another critic, meanwhile, suggested that Ms. Spellings was too willing to compromise last year when Democrats in Congress pushed through dramatic cuts in the NCLB law’s Reading First program, from $1 billion in fiscal 2007 to $391 million in the current year. Democrats cited critical reports from the Department of Education’s inspector general that said department employees had improperly influenced state curricular decisions in the early years of the reading initiative.

Ms. Spellings didn’t do enough to tout the program’s popularity and success, said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. Instead, Mr. Petrilli said, the secretary tried to distance herself from the program, which she had helped oversee as a White House aide when Education Department officials made the questionable decisions.

“To me, the secretary was more interested in protecting herself than protecting the program,” said Mr. Petrilli, who worked as a political appointee at the Education Department under Rod Paige, Ms. Spellings’ predecessor as secretary.

In the interview, Ms. Spellings said that Congress made the decision to cut the reading program over the administration’s protest, and that she expects state and local officials to complain loudly to federal lawmakers.

“That’s bad for kids,” she said. “Congress is going to hear about that from the states.”

Staying Put

Ms. Spellings said she intends to remain in her post until President Bush leaves office and then will stay involved in debates over K-12 policy. But she said she doesn’t know in what capacity she’ll be working in those debates. She plans to pursue opportunities in the private sector that would increase her income, she said. She makes $186,600 a year as a Cabinet secretary.

Although some Washington insiders have speculated that she may return to Texas to run for governor or the U.S. Senate, Ms. Spellings said she expects to keep living in suburban Washington until her youngest daughter graduates from high school in 2010.

“I’m probably going to stay in Washington for a while,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Spellings Seeks to Cast Her Glow Over NCLB


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