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Education Next: Education Secretary Margaret Spellings Faces Tough Test in NCLB Reauthorization Fight


Contact: Michelle R. Davis, (301) 588-5084

STANFORD, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is likely to be facing the fight of her career when the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) takes center stage in the coming months. Her "do what it takes" practicality may be one of the few things that could push the embattled law forward, writes Michelle R. Davis in her new profile of Spellings in the forthcoming issue of Education Next (summer 2007). See Texas Hold 'em: Secretary Spellings - the ace in Bush's hand.

As Davis points out, Spellings was a key architect of the law, overseeing its implementation as President Bush's domestic policy adviser, and not one to bend on issues related to its implementation early on. Her time as education secretary, however, has been defined less by legalism and rigidity than by compromise and flexibility. Although Spellings has characterized herself as a "results over process person," her pragmatic approach has assuaged some critics and early on diffused a looming state rebellion against the law. When Spellings took over the helm of the U.S. Department of Education in 2005 there was a great deal of unrest over NCLB's implementation and many states were actively pushing back against it, explains Davis.

In a speech to state education chiefs in April 2005, Spellings announced that she would be willing to bend when it came to enforcement of NCLB. "It is the results that truly matter, not the bureaucratic way that you get there," Spellings said.

For example, the idea of using "value-added" or "growth" models for measuring student achievement, formerly opposed by the White House and rejected by then education secretary Rod Paige, has been given the go-ahead under Spellings, and states have been allowed to submit proposals for using such models.

Spellings also instituted a pilot project that permits some struggling schools to provide tutoring to students a year before allowing them to transfer to a higher-performing school, swapping the order prescribed by NCLB. She has also permitted some school districts that have failed to reach proficiency targets to continue providing tutoring to students, and has compromised when it comes to using alternative assessments for special education students.

But critics question whether these flexibilities are substantive or just a public relations tactic that only appears to soften the demands of NCLB. Spellings herself has not been altogether pleased with some of her compromises, notes Davis. For example, NCLB required all teachers to be highly qualified by the 2005-06 school year, but because most states weren't close to complying, federal officials extended the deadline. The law allows veteran teachers to meet the criteria in part by using an alternative method created individually by each state, the High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation or HOUSSE provision.

"Spellings has been unhappy with the provision, saying some states' HOUSSE plans were less than rigorous, and announced last year that the program would be eliminated," explains Davis. "But groups like the National Education Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers forcefully objected." The department backtracked, saying the issue would instead be raised in reauthorization and states could continue to use it for veteran teachers.

Some think this was a strategic retreat that enabled Spellings to score much-needed points with certain factions. Spellings, however, says the issue was just a matter of law: "I took an oath of office to uphold every single aspect of the law and I intend to do that."

"Spellings is going to need more than her pragmatism if she wants to see reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act move forward and ensure the education legacy of President Bush," writes Davis. Democrats and Republicans alike are getting heat from constituents frustrated with the law's demands and penalties for schools. In March 2007, more than 50 Republicans in the House and Senate threw their support behind a proposal that would gut the accountability provisions in NCLB and allow states to opt out of the federal law's penalties altogether. In addition, the nation's two powerful teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, took their first unified stand against the law in March, joining forces to call for a radical overhaul of NCLB's accountability measures.

"Throw into the mix the fact that Democrats now control both sides of the U.S. Capitol and a looming election season that makes even bold politicians squeamish, and you have a daunting atmosphere for a reauthorization battle," Davis writes.

Read "Texas Hold 'em: Secretary Spellings -- the Ace in Bush's Hand" now online at www.EducationNext.org

Michelle R. Davis is a freelance education writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She was a federal reporter for Education Week and covered Congress in the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau.

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

— Education Next
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