Margaret Spellings: 'No Child Left Behind' faces political head winds

Education secretary says the reform will be hard to reauthorize with '08 election.

There is growing doubt whether Congress will reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law in the waning days of the current session.

Even Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is tempered in her confidence. "I have worked hard to get a reauthorization," she told a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters on Thursday. "The bad news is that we are attempting to do it ... on the eve of a presidential election." Congress is supposed to make revisions in the law and reauthorize it every five years.

Whether or not Congress changes the legislation through reauthorization, it will remain on the books and "is strong as mustard gas," Secretary Spellings said.

In her view, the 2001 law, which requires schools to track the progress of students in math and English, is a major domestic legacy of the Bush presidency. When asked about the argument that President Bush has few accomplishments to offset failure in Iraq and that his most lasting legacy will be a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, Spellings said, "I completely disagree with the thesis." She added that No Child "has been a huge game-changer in American education."

Given the resignation this week of longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes, Spellings is one of the president's few remaining Texas friends still holding top-level administration jobs. "I'm going to stay unless something horrible happens to me physically," she said.

When asked about running for statewide office in Texas, Spellings said she had not "ruled anything in or out." She quipped that after government service, reporters might find her running the "snack food association."

Most cabinet officers dress and paint their word pictures in tones of gray. Not Spellings. She showed up for breakfast in pants and a bright red jacket. Her responses to reporters were filled with pungent images. Education policy was "the Greek drama of education." Opponents who oppose tracking student progress take the "ostrich approach." She dubbed the best performing schools "Cream Puff High." As for education's role in domestic policy, it is "the big kahuna."

Through all the good cheer, Spellings is not oblivious to the challenges facing her party and her president. The secretary said, "I generally agree" with Mr. Bush's former chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, whose new book argues that the Republican Party is in the midst of an "identity crisis."

In a column in The Washington Post on Wednesday, Mr. Gerson argued that Republican presidential candidates "have adopted what one analyst calls 'a baseline conservatism,' fearful that policy innovation or outreach to nontraditional groups will be viewed with suspicion by the party's antigovernment base. In debates and forums, Republican candidates talk endlessly of budget restraint but spare few words for racial reconciliation, the problems of addiction or at-risk youths, or the economic prospects of the poor."

"When people do talk about education, they tend to go [to] the two poles," Spellings said. "Democrats talk about things that please teachers unions and Republicans talk about things that please Federalists ... people who want to abolish the Department of Education, that kind of old-saw stuff.... Then when they campaign, they have a hard time getting themselves off those limbs into centrist type policies like No Child Left Behind."

Whether or not Democrats take control of the White House and keep Congress in 2008, Spellings argued that the changes Bush has spearheaded in education would last. "I think the standards and accountability movement is here to stay. The genie is out of the bottle," she said. "People have come to expect information about their schools, they have begun to expect some consequences around those issues.... It is going to be very hard to take away these reforms, to take something that is very transparent and go back to the good old days of the ostrich approach."

As to the overall state of American education, Spellings said, "We are doing a darn good job, a pretty good job of educating elites. But we are not doing a good job at all of educating lots and lots of Americans, particularly people of color and poor people. "

The Education secretary advocates better targeting of educational resources.

"We cannot continue to send our most experienced people to Cream Puff High and our least experienced people to the most challenged educational environments. We cannot continue to spend the exact amount of time with our most disadvantaged kids as we do with our most advantaged kids and hope that those kids are somehow going to catch up or get to grade level."

When it came to the prospects for reauthorizing No Child, Spellings offered both sides.

Here is her argument for expecting action. "The good news is there is a lot of consensus around what I call the sweet spot of the issues that need to be addressed – getting credit for progress, making distinctions in the accountability system, finding ways to get our best teachers in the most challenging places," she said. But "it is the big kahuna of domestic policy – 50 million kids, 90,000 schools, every single community in this country is affected by this law. So at any time in the Congress, this is hard policy to be wrought. As you know, this law isn't going anywhere."

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