GOP Leaders Ponder Party's Role in Education Policy
What role should the Republican Party play in the national education debate?
Two former Education Secretaries—Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Margaret Spellings—used their positions as party leaders to answer that question at a Fordham Institute event in Washington this week, at times diverging on key issues such as federal mandates and states’ willingness to instill effective accountability systems.
Margaret Spellings, President George W. Bush’s education secretary, defended that administration’s signature domestic policy, the No Child Left Behind law. She touted the law’s emphasis on collecting new academic achievement data, particularly on various socioeconomic and demographic subgroups of students within schools.
[See EWA’s Story Starter on No Child Left Behind/Early and Secondary Education Act]
While the Obama administration has allowed some states to opt-out of the many of the law’s more onerous provisions, states are still expected to collect NCLB data on subgroups and intervene in the worst five percent of schools. Spellings expressed some concern about the effect these waivers might have. “I do think that right now today, every single school today in this country… [has] to understand the tool and the pressure of No Child Left Behind,” Spellings said. “When we retreat to that five percent only, I worry that it [NCLB] basically becomes ‘the suburban schools relief act.’”
For Alexander, “There can be exhortation and leadership, national report cards and reporting, there can be encouragement for charter schools…but I just think from this next stage, you got to stimulate it locally.”
[See EWA's Story Starter on federal education reform efforts]
Washington’s place in the warren of education policy was scrutinized as well. After an audience member noted a state Republican official said states rely on the federal government for guidance on accountability, adding states “do what makes them look the best,” Alexander balked. “I don’t care if he is [a Republican]. I don’t believe that. That’s offensive to me. What that says is ‘I’m incompetent down here in my leadership capacity,’” Alexander said. “‘Please all you wise people in Washington make us be good.’ I don’t believe that. I don’t get any smarter the day I come up here.”
He added: “People have to buy into things and do it for themselves.”
Spellings took a different tack. “I would be doubtful that we would see in the Illinois and Pennsylvania and New York, California etc. accountability systems and the sorts of consequential things had it been left to states,” she said. “Fast forward 10 years, I think we’re seeing in the waivers exactly that phenomenon. ‘Well we don’t really want to do choice, the school people don’t like it, it’s this and that.’ We’re seeing super-subgroups that are a way to mask the achievement of African American, Hispanic, and special ed kids…yeah, we can trust and verify, but the verification is not there.”
On school choice, Spellings argued that NCLB redoubled the Republican party’s commitment to school choice. She pointed to the law’s provision on forcing schools to pay for child tutoring services and separately noted that the Bush administration pushed for public funds to pay for private schools—called vouchers—in the nation’s capital. “An empowered consumer is a consumer who's informed,” Spellings said. “As we debate the niceties of federalism and federal policy, we have to keep our eye on the ball, and that is: ‘How are the kids doing?’”
School vouchers are not an exclusively Republican platform, of course. Democrats like former D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell have all supported vouchers for low-income students or tax-credits that would help offset the cost of private school.
Both Spellings and Alexander are encouraged by what they’ve heard from presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who earlier in the year revealed an education policy platform that would parcel Title I money to individual students like vouchers. Romney would also dismantle the assessments requirements of NCLB and strip away federal mandates on states to improve their schools.
Despite the legislative standstill in Congress on education policy, Sen. Alexander said “We ought to declare some victory … you’ve got a lot of Republican leadership over that time [last thirty years], you’ve got a lot of national advocacy.”
Still the Tennessee senator attributed the Obama administration’s use of NCLB waivers as “the result of Congress’ inaction.” Alexander offered a solution on how to wriggle out of the legislative impasse, saying presidential leadership can lift important laws above the fray. ”Without it being a huge presidential priority, it’s going to be hard to reauthorize,” Alexander said.
By comparison, he said the previous president “devoted his full attention [to NCLB] until he got it done.”