It can't be easy for U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She's passionate about all things to do with school. "This is my life's work, my calling," she says. Yet, here she is, in the final year of the Bush administration, and instead of continuing the grand work of remaking America's schools, she's stamping out brush fires in college-lending caused by the credit crunch and rattling the cages of fat cats in higher education. She doesn't like to say it out loud, but despite her very best efforts, things haven't worked out like she (or her boss) had planned.
At lunch this week with NEWSWEEK, she was determined to look forward, not back. She's had a great ride. She came to Washington, first as senior domestic policy adviser in 2001, with a popular Republican president who promptly wrested education away from the Democrats, the ones who had traditionally dominated the issue. Back then, President Bush spoke loud and often about the raw deal poor and minority kids were getting in public school. Instead of a bleeding heart, he showed a kind of flinty compassion for the poor by condemning what he famously called the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that plagued our inner cities. He coupled that with an inspired can-do attitude about making real, lasting change that disarmed even his fiercest opponents.
Within a year, the president had, with bipartisan support, come up with what seemed like a clear-eyed solution—passing the wide-ranging No Child Left Behind reform, which Spellings helped draft. Finally, someone was holding teachers and principals accountable for the chronic and systemic failure that was plaguing America's schools, particularly the poor ones. With the support of Congress, the president forced states to set goals for schools and put pressure on them to meet them. In 2004, Spellings became Education secretary—and the torch bearer for one of Bush's signature domestic policy.
That was then. Seven years later after the law was enacted, No Child Left Behind is chiefly known by its flaws. Yes, states have standards, but some are laughably low. Local leaders, frightened by failing schools further eroding already tanking property values, have turned many schools into test-prep factories where teachers slavishly follow "standards" to teach the most basic curriculum, often in the most boring way. Kids endure weeks of teaching to the test and, in some locations, attend test pep rallies before the big day where they cheer each other on to get higher scores.
Because of the law, some formerly lackluster schools have become engaged in an often-heroic struggle to teach disadvantaged kids more, but because of the act's broad language, many are still designated as "failing." At a time when the numbers of Latino children in our public schools are skyrocketing—and schools are held responsible for making sure they learn—we still haven't mastered the process of making sure native Spanish speakers keep up.
To make matters worse, the rhetoric between the teachers unions and policymakers has rarely been more harsh. "No Child Left Behind may be the most negative brand in America," Rep. George Miller of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee told The New York Times. He should know. His attempt to broker some kind of nonpartisan agreement on how to fix the controversial law blew up in his face last fall.
Spellings has tried to rally support. But on Capitol Hill, neither Republicans nor Democrats seemed in the mood to compromise. In school communities across the country—where Spellings has stumped tirelessly in an effort to get parents to support the law—she's been greeted mostly by bewilderment. In middle-class communities the reaction has been worse: disparaging No Child Left Behind has become convenient shorthand for a whole load of pent-up frustrations with the White House (Iraq, sinking economy).
These days, Spellings is looking at the bright side where she can find it. A Bush loyalist to the end, she's planning to stay on until January. Like everyone else in the education field, she's noticed that none of the presidential candidates are talking much about education. She takes their near-total silence on this heartland issue to be, if not a good, then at least a neutral sign. "None of them have locked themselves in to a position that they can't get out of," and by that she means that neither of the Democratic candidates have wholly adopted the agenda of the powerful teachers union.
But she worries about the future of No Child Left Behind. "The loopholes will get larger," Spellings predicts. "States will game the system as best they can in order to get out of doing what they should do to close the achievement gap. No Child Left Behind turned up the heat. And not everyone is comfortable with that."
Even if many despise the law—and the downstream effect it's had on their kids' schools—Spellings wants to think that she's done some good. At the very minimum, she hopes the heat and light surrounding No Child Left Behind has focused the attention of America on the shameful achievement gap between middle-class and poor kids, between white kids and kids of color. "And things can't go back the way they used to be—when we didn't have accountability," she implores. "When we didn't care that poor kids were falling behind." She pauses. "Can we?"