Schools czar charges hard for No Child Left Behind
Ohanian Comment: Notice how all the stories about NCLB now include vignettes of Spellings the Mom (even as they call her Czar?) They miss the mark with me. Too studied, too pat. The fact that this is written by a Dallas News reporter and appears in the Charlotte Observer gives you an idea of how regulated the message is.
Education secretary knows she'll be judged on success of initiatives
by Robert Dodge
WASHINGTON - Margaret Spellings hardly notices the jolts of turbulence on a recent predawn flight to New Orleans. She consumes briefing papers and bios of students and educators, takes a stab at a sudoku puzzle, and then zeroes in on an essay by her 13-year-old daughter, Grace.
"We've got some punctuation issues. She can do better than this," says Spellings, who has goaded her two daughters into studying by warning: "You cannot be the child left behind."
One year into her tenure as secretary of education, Spellings, 48, has set an ambitious agenda for herself. As chief architect of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, she wants the program not only to turn out students proficient in reading, math and science, but she wants it to take a firm hold in U.S. schools.
And that's not all. Spellings aims to expand the law's testing and accountability requirements at the high-school level. She is leading a commission to study higher education and is looking ahead to 2007, when No Child Left Behind must be reauthorized and is likely to face demands from Congress for revisions.
This year, she will also push Bush's latest initiative to boost spending for math and science education by $326 million.
It will not be easy.
The new proposals reopened criticism that the Bush administration has not adequately funded No Child Left Behind.
"The question remains whether the president will fund this," said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
A lot is at stake: Spellings will be judged on the outcome of the largest set of education initiatives since 1983, when a blue-ribbon commission issued "A Nation at Risk," a study alerting Americans to the decline in public schools.
"It's hard to think of anyone who has had as much influence on national education policy. That is a heck of a legacy," said Frederick Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market research group.
The historic significance of the work is not lost on Spellings: "We are in the middle of doing something very, very profound."
Spellings is passionate about education, but it was not a career goal: "Education found me," she said.
She began working on education as an aide in the Texas Legislature and became a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards. When George W. Bush became governor, he tapped her to push his education initiatives.
When he became president in 2000, Bush made Spellings his domestic policy adviser. In that post, she led efforts to enact No Child Left Behind.
The law won bipartisan support, and its principles still have support on Capitol Hill. But it has been controversial with educators, who revolted over the rigid enforcement of her predecessor Rod Paige.
Spellings spent much of 2005 cleaning up what he left behind: The department was under fire for paying syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams to produce a video promoting No Child Left Behind. Some states threatened to abandon the program. And the National Education Association sued to block its implementation.
"The law was going to implode," said Patricia Sullivan with the Center on Education Policy.
Added the House's Miller: "She inherited an Education Department that was in absolute chaos."
Spellings moved quickly.
She called the 50 state school chiefs together and promised to be more flexible. Some said she headed off a growing revolt.
"She clearly conveyed to the chiefs that she cared," said Texas education commissioner Shirley Neeley, who tangled with Spellings when Texas was fined $800,000 last year for failing to meet testing standards for disabled students.
Then came Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which leveled schools along the Gulf Coast. And when floodwaters covered New Orleans, 48,000 students headed for Texas.
"Margaret was one of the first people to call," Neeley said. And Spellings was to the point: "Tell me how we can help."
Since then, she has visited the Gulf Coast six times and secured $230 million to help schools -- though she drew fire from school choice opponents when some of the funds were used to provide vouchers for students displaced from private schools. Spellings defends the move, denying it was an opportunity to advance school vouchers but rather an effort to get children back in school.
She chose to be on hand recently as colleges and universities resumed classes in New Orleans, moving quickly through tours of Xavier and Tulane universities, a round table with students and a private session with college presidents pleading for more money.
The students made the biggest impression, she said. After hearing them describe being displaced from school and committed to helping rebuild New Orleans, her voice cracked ever so slightly. "You have given me a great feeling about what is possible here."
A Local Look at No Child Left Behind
The Observer's Pam Kelley is following 16 fifth-graders at Merry Oaks International Academy of Learning as their teacher, Jeremiah Merritt, works to ensure no child is left behind. A few of his challenges at the east Charlotte school:
• Some of his students still sound out words in thirdgrade picture books. To have a chance at passing their End-of-Grade tests, some will have to show more than two years' academic growth in one school year.
• For nearly half the students at Merry Oaks, English isn't the main language spoken at home. Of the 16 kids in Merritt's class, five are Spanish speakers still learning English.
Robert Dodge, Dallas News
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES