A few weeks ago when an Associated Press story revealed that more than half the states had created gaping loopholes in No Child Left Behind’s strict school-rating system–with the approval of the U.S. Department of Education–the press and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were quick to decry the situation and call for an immediate fix.
Not so Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who expressed only the mildest dismay, and promised no concrete remedy.
That’s because Spellings–who first helped design and then enforce the law during four years at the White House domestic-policy shop–has been methodically gutting No Child Left Behind since about the time she became secretary.
As a result, the massive law, once thought of as downright Draconian, has lost much of its power–an outcome about whose necessity and long-term effects experts differ.
However, there’s only so much dismantling of a law that you can do before folks start to take notice. Since the AP raised the alarm a few weeks ago, the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have both started asking questions about the secretary’s performance. And Spellings has started tightening down a little.
This wasn’t always the plan for NCLB. For much of George W. Bush’s first term, the law–the president’s sole major domestic achievement–was insulated from nearly all tinkering. And Spellings was its behind-the-scenes enforcer.
At Spellings’s insistence, former Secretary Rod Paige valiantly (and sometimes reluctantly) held the line against complaints about the law’s requirements and unintended consequences–much to the dismay of many educators, some parents, and a small but growing number of elected state officials.
Over and over, Paige and others were sent out to tell unhappy educators that there would be no exemptions or waivers. Do we really have to include nearly all disabled and bilingual kids in the testing and reporting system, asked states? Yes. What if it costs a lot to transport kids to better-performing schools, asked districts? Pay for it. You’re not really serious about this annual 100 percent proficiency thing, are you, asked nearly everyone? Super serious.
However, since about the time Spellings moved from the White House to the Department of Education in early 2005, much the opposite has been true: over and over, Spellings has backed down, eased off, and otherwise undercut the law in ways that would previously have been unimaginable.
Last summer, when the law was on the verge of shifting tens of millions of federal education dollars from urban school districts to outside tutoring companies, Spellings created a “pilot” program that allowed several big-city districts to keep on doing their own tutoring–and to keep the money.
Halfway through the school year, Spellings announced that the department would let some states come up with their own ways of measuring their progress towards eliminating the achievement gap instead of the much-loathed “annual yearly progress” specifications that had been enacted.
And just last week, Spellings–who has received adoring press coverage up to this point–announced that only eleven states faced possible sanctions for failing to ensure that poor children are being taught by fully qualified teachers. The states had already been given four full years to comply with this requirement, and Spellings had already promised them an extra year. Insiders predict that few states if any are likely to get fined.
Of course, Spellings didn’t do all this on her own. The law itself is full of loopholes. Each year, state and local education officials have gotten better at finding and exploiting them. Congressional Democrats washed their hands of the law seemingly within minutes of having voted overwhelmingly to pass it, while former House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner all but excised his central role in its passage when running for majority leader. And, while some speculate that Spellings is unwilling or unable to play bad cop in public like she had in private, it’s almost certain the White House supported her moves to roll things back.
Opinions differ on whether Spellings’s reversals were really necessary. Some insiders thought that the law’s initial implementation was creating a rebellion that could lead to the wholesale repeal of the law or–even worse–could discredit the 15-year effort to promote standards and accountability in education. Others thought that the worst had passed, and that a handful of states refusing federal education funding to get out of the law’s requirements wasn’t too high a price to pay for creating what would be, in effect, a first-ever national system of education accountability. It would not have been pretty, that’s for sure.
But as time has passed, it’s gotten harder to keep No Child Left Behind and Spellings’s maneuvers under wraps. The end point may have come during the last month or so, during which the New York Times editorial page, long ambivalent about the law’s impact on schools and teachers, expressed its concerns that Spellings was letting this go too far (School Reform in Danger). The Wall Street Journal also weighed in at about the same time, declaring that “Ms. Spellings’s generosity with these exemptions is leaving schools to their own worst devices. And it is hurting the system’s most vulnerable children.”
And so, things finally may be heading back to center. Boehner’s replacement, Howard “Buck” McKeon, announced the start of committee hearings on NCLB. Spellings announced that just two states (North Carolina and Tennessee) would be allowed to experiment with developing their own school-ratings systems–an approach that many worried would undo the law entirely if applied nationally.
What we’ll never really know is whether No Child Left Behind would have been better off left alone.
–Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer and former Senate staffer. His blog, www.thisweekineducation.com, covers education policy and politics.