Good Policy and Good Politics
Prepared Remarks for Secretary Spellings at the American Legislative Exchange Council's 32nd Annual Meeting in Grapevine, Texas (ALEC)
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August 4, 2005 Speaker sometimes deviates from text.
Thank you Jane for your kind introduction. Jane and I had a great breakfast in Washington recently, along with other members of the ALEC leadership team. She came to that breakfast with an agenda—your agenda—and I appreciated her candor and wise counsel and am still making my way through her list of ideas. I hope we can get together again soon, Jane.
I want to thank Jane and all of ALEC's members for welcoming me here today. ALEC has been a steadfast supporter of education reform and No Child Left Behind since the very beginning. Thank you for your support and commitment to giving all our children a quality education.
Robert Enlow is here from the Friedman Foundation—I truly appreciate the terrific work that you and Jane do as chairs of ALEC's Education Task Force. And Bobby Harrell—congratulations on your recent election as speaker of the House of Representatives in the great state of South Carolina; Wyoming Representative Pete Illoway, good morning to you, sir, and thank you for your leadership. Texas Representative Vicki Truitt is here—thanks Vicki for hosting us here in your home district in a state that's obviously very close to my heart. Are there any other Texans here today? It's great to see some folks from home.
I also appreciate Kurt Malmgren from PhRMA, chairman of ALEC's Private Enterprise Board, and all of ALEC's members from the business community. We in the Bush administration talk about the need to go from success to significance. Getting involved in public policy lets you do things that are very significant in people's lives.
I'm happy to be here with the people who are making education reform happen. I know as well as you do that the hard work of educating our children doesn't happen in Washington, D.C. After 30 years working at the state level and now at the federal level, I "get" why you chose public service. You're helping people; you're changing lives; you're educating kids; and I think it's a huge honor that we have the opportunity to do that. It's the best part of democracy.
I have missed my time in state government. Obviously I love working at the federal level too—I enjoy seeing all the differences that we have in our great country—and yet how much we as Americans have in common. If you want to improve a lot of lives, and do it pretty quickly, then working in the state legislative arena is the best place to be, especially in education.
Back when he was governor of Texas, President Bush liked to say, "Education is to states what defense is to the federal government: the highest priority." I bet many of you spend well more than half of your state budgets on that priority—I know we did in Texas.
I told George Will a few months ago that we at the Department of Education are good federalists. And I meant it. We all know that when our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they clearly reserved certain powers for the states—not the federal government. One of those responsibilities was education.
You're the primary investors in that central task of education. On average, the federal government is only contributing 8 percent of your education funds. The federal education role has always been to complement states' efforts. Federal funds are targeted towards our neediest children. That's why the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed 40 years ago—to help the children who need it most.
Education reform started with us at the state level. Not to be a Texas braggadocio, but states like Texas and North Carolina were the pioneers. I was working in the Texas legislature when the reform movement got going, starting in the mid-1980s, after A Nation at Risk was published. Later on, I went to work for then—Gov. George W. Bush. I saw that he truly believed then—as he does now—that every single child can learn. It was hard work—as the Texans here know, this is a huge, diverse state—and we learned a lot from the challenges of those reforms. That experience helped make education the president's top domestic priority for the 2000 campaign.
At that time, we knew that there were problems with our education system, but the main solution being offered was to spend more money. We campaigned for a new solution—bringing high standards and accountability into our schools, and disaggregating data so that parents, teachers and schools would know how every child was doing in school. That made a lot of sense to people—especially to parents. Focusing on education was a new approach for a Republican presidential candidate, and it generated a lot of support.
In the eight months preceding January 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law, support for the Republican party's stance on education jumped by more than 25 points. I don't have to tell this audience that 25 points in eight months is a very impressive gain.
No Child Left Behind is good policy and good politics. More than three-quarters of Americans believe that if our high schools don't change soon, our country will be less able to compete in the global marketplace. And almost as many favor extending the law by asking states to set standards for high schools and to make sure that those standards are met. Almost half of minority parents strongly favor this approach—which is almost exactly the percentage of Republicans who strongly favor it. That's the kind of alliance I hope to see a lot more of.
This law is good policy and good politics because the American people see education as a value, not an issue. There is a difference. Values represent the hopes and dreams that parents have for their children. A value is a belief we hold close to our hearts. It is a principle, a standard, and a quality that is worthwhile and desirable. That's why the majority of adults in our country say that a high-quality public education system is the most important factor in our country's global success.
They know education is a fundamental part of our nation's legacy of innovation and achievement.
When asked, people throughout our country—and especially women with children, Hispanics, Catholics, and Independents—said this value is a driving motivation for them. More than one-quarter of all Americans are now enrolled in school—that's 74, 911,000 people, according to Census Bureau statistics. And that's not even counting the parents and grandparents of children in school—obviously they have a big stake in student achievement! These citizens are counting on our public education system to be their ticket to the American dream. So it makes sense that they support high expectations for our schools, and they believe in holding schools accountable for helping children learn.
We now have evidence that all those people were absolutely right to join us in supporting high standards and accountability. The Nation's Long Term Report Card recently came out, and it shows that we're moving in the right direction. Scores are rising, the achievement gap is closing, and No Child Left Behind is working. We're seeing all-time highs in student achievement.
Nationally, reading scores for 9-year-olds increased more over the last five years than in all the years between 1971 and 1999 combined. And African-American and Hispanic students posted some of the biggest gains.
In math, 9- and 13-year-olds' scores also reached all-time highs. Hispanic 9-year-olds saw their scores rise by 17 points over the last five years. As you know, a 17-point increase on the Nation's Report Card is enormous.
Report Card scores for individual states will be released later this fall, and I expect them to show real progress, too.
We're also seeing terrific progress on state assessments.
In Georgia, 75 percent of third-grade English language learners scored proficient or better in reading, up 23 percentage points from 2002. And 81 percent of third-grade students with disabilities scored proficient or better in reading, up 26 percentage points from 2002.
In Wisconsin, 87 percent of third-graders were reading at grade-level or above. This number was an all-time high, and a 13 percentage point increase over 2002 scores.
In Maryland, the achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African-American students and between white and Hispanic students are narrowing. Over the last two years, 16 percent more African-American third-graders have become proficient in math. And 24 percent more Hispanic third-graders have become proficient in reading.
These students are making historic gains. Like President Bush said yesterday, "[W]e're making great progress for the American people." And as I like to say, reform plus resources equals results. No Child Left Behind aims high and focuses on using what works. It holds schools accountable for student achievement, and it brings practical, research-based tools into the classroom while respecting local decision making. It's providing historic levels of resources to states to help children learn. Through this school year, Department of Education funding for No Child Left Behind has increased by almost $7 billion since fiscal year 2001. Our overall K-12 spending has grown by more than 37 percent over that same period. Title I funding for disadvantaged students alone has increased 52 percent.
We're also supporting teachers and schools so that they can do even better next year—and every year after that. No Child Left Behind is not a mandate, it's a partnership. It's an agreement that says, if you take federal taxpayer dollars for education, you must accept responsibility for increasing student achievement. Studies prove the law is adequately funded:
In May 2004, the Government Accountability Office found that No Child Left Behind is not a mandate, and that the law did not violate the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act. Instead, as this study said, "The requirements of the law were a condition of the federal assistance."
A May 2003 GAO study concluded that Congress is providing more than enough money for states to design and implement the statewide achievement tests.
Thanks to this law, families now have access to new options—like free after-school tutoring for their children and the ability to transfer them to better-performing schools. Last year, around 250,000 students took advantage of these services, and that number is growing. Parents today have more choices than ever before—public schools, charter schools, private schools, parochial schools, cyber schools, and home schools. And the competition is driving everyone to improve.
Last year, more than 1,000 students got the chance to attend a better performing private school as part of the first ever federally funded school voucher program, otherwise known as D.C. Choice.
We are also encouraging innovation and excellence in teaching. We are supporting alternative routes to certification and trying to help more people become teachers. We have also proposed a Teacher Incentive Fund to reward teachers for strong performance, not merely for years of experience.
We've accomplished a lot with No Child Left Behind over the last three-and-a-half years. Thank you all for sticking with this legislation. I appreciate your dedication, and we still have plenty to do. I believe student achievement is our most important focus. While we will continue to abide by the law's "bright line" principles—annual assessments, the disaggregating of data and the closing the achievement gap by 2013-14. We are implementing the law in a sensible, workable way.
When I travel around the country, I'm meeting with legislators—like Colorado State Senator Nancy Spence, Ohio State Senator Joy Padgett and many more. I'm getting your views in nearly every place I go. I consistently hear three questions about how we are implementing No Child Left Behind. And I'm sure you hear the same three questions!
How can we best assess students with disabilities? Is there a way to give credit to schools for growth in student achievement? And, what should we expect from students who come to the United States with little education or no English fluency? The Department is working through these issues.
First, we are continuing to use our best research to make sure children in special education programs are learning and taking tests that are meaningful to them. The Department had already taken steps to help states establish alternate, more appropriate tests for students with significant disabilities. New research tells us there are other students with disabilities who need additional time and intensive instruction to reach grade level. In response to that research, we will be working with states that want to develop "modified tests." So far, 35 states have signed on to this effort by making changes to their accountability plans and committing to develop modified tests for these students—representing about 2 percent of the total student population. The Department will be providing help along the way in the form of technical assistance and competitive grants to states.
A second issue I hear about is the need to give schools credit for improving student achievement. The Department is considering the idea of a growth model, in which schools would get credit for progress over time. But I must be clear—to have a sound growth model system, you must have annual data. And students must be making progress that leads to proficiency as required by law.
With your concerns in mind, I have also convened a special working group that is exploring appropriate and meaningful approaches to measure the progress of children who have not grown up speaking English. We want them to learn English and meet the same high academic content standards and expectations that we have for every student. The working group includes researchers, practitioners and educators who work with English language learners. The Department will soon have recommendations for the field based on data and the best thinking available on including English language learners in state accountability systems.
Our next step from here is to take the high standards and accountability of No Child Left Behind into our high schools. Currently, only about two-thirds of ninth-graders finish high school on time, and even those who do finish are often unprepared for the workforce or higher education. Hispanic students are almost four times more likely to drop out of school than white students, and they are also more than twice as likely to drop out as African-Americans.
We all know these statistics, and we all know how serious they are for our country, and for the students themselves. Several members from ALEC's private sector contingent are sitting up here with me—Alan Smith from the Ohio Casualty Group and Pete Poynter from BellSouth. You know better than me about the importance of a well-educated workforce. And you know better than anybody that companies are making decisions about where to put their factories and their headquarters based on the quality of local education systems.
We know our high schools need improvement. Seventy five percent of Americans agree, and almost as many think we should require states to set standards for high schools and make sure those standards are met. Our nation's governors think so, too—47 members of the National Governor's Association just agreed on a common graduation rate. So what are we waiting for? Let's get to work on improving the quality of our high schools!
All these people agree on reform because they all know that education is the key to achievement. Millions and millions of Americans of every color and every background—people from every one of our 50 states—trust our public schools with their children. They also trust us with their hopes and dreams for their children's futures. High standards and accountability make a lot sense to these people, and for good reasons. We now have proof that those concepts really are helping students achieve their dreams.
Thank you again for welcoming me here today.
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