- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Education Department has a new boss. Rod Paige is out, and Margaret Spellings is in. As a chief White House domestic adviser, Mrs. Spellings was an architect of President Bush’s key education initiative, the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The significance is uncertain partly because the Bush administration’s second-term education agenda remains uncertain. It can be hoped that, on taking over the department reins, Mrs. Spellings will articulate this needed vision.

The potential of the education secretary’s position is substantial, as displayed by former secretaries Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander. Both used the “bully pulpit” of the department to change the terms of debate broadly on issues of culture, and more precisely on the critical need for standards, testing and accountability for results. Both also helped spotlight success stories and plant the seeds for the now growing school-choice movement.

Rod Paige, a son of the segregated South, was an eloquent spokesman for the need to close the nation’s lingering racial achievement gap and oversaw implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. The D.C. voucher initiative likely would have been impossible without Mr. Paige’s personal prestige and his behind-the-scenes cajoling of D.C. officials.

Although other education secretaries have barely left a trace, Messrs. Bennett, Alexander and Paige clearly showed the value of real leadership.

Mrs. Spellings presumably is fond of the No Child Left Behind Act she helped craft, and rightly so. Schools now are required to administer annual tests in reading and math to all third-through eighth-graders, states must identify failing schools, and children in poorly performing schools are granted federal rights to free tutoring and transfers to better schools.

But enough time has passed for prominent warts to appear. This is not a slap at No Child Left Behind, but recognition any federal reform of this scope requires midcourse corrections. Because of her central role in crafting No Child Left Behind, Mrs. Spellings is uniquely situated to fix its now apparent flaws.

The law, for example, requires any school for which a subgroup fails a state test to be labeled a “school in need of improvement,” more bluntly called a “failing school” by many outside of the department. Applying this label equally to a school at which virtually all students are failing and to a school at which just some are failing doesn’t make much sense. And, politically, it undermines support for the law and diminishes the power of the label to spark change. The answer isn’t to ignore failure of subgroups (racial, economic or based on special needs) but to create more graduated designations that doesn’t confuse generally good schools with generally bad schools.

Also in need of reform is No Child Left Behind’s supplemental-service provisions, under which students in failing schools are entitled to free tutoring from public, private or religious organizations. This federal “mini voucher,” worth $1,000 or more per child in many districts, should be extended to all students who fail to meet state standards regardless of how well their school is doing overall. Even in a good school, some students will desperately need tutoring.

This free tutoring has become wildly popular among parents and attracts an unusual mix of providers. In Albany, N.Y., for example, supplemental-service providers include the local branch of the NAACP, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the local Democratic mayor, national tutoring firms, and a community development organization run by a neighborhood African-American church. These groups have been galvanized by the fact both of Albany’s middle schools are failing, with about 9 in 10 minority children failing the state’s math and reading exams.

Despite this enthusiasm, parents have faced needless roadblocks from local school districts. The Education De- partment needs to shine a spotlight on this behavior and, with state educational agencies, step up enforcement.

Mrs. Spellings also could help push through pending revisions in federal Title IX regulations, to allow separate instruction in public schools for boys and girls. It’s not often Mr. Bush and Hillary Clinton agree on a major public policy issue, and Mrs. Spellings shouldn’t let this bipartisan initiative languish.

Mrs. Spellings and the president also should embrace expanding the D.C. choice initiative. Ideally, children in failing public schools anywhere in the U.S. should be granted scholarships to the public or private school of their choice.

In his first four years, Mr. Bush transformed federal educational policy. The second term offers the president and his new education secretary a chance to build on that strong foundation and create the lasting change that will, indeed, see no child left behind.

Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability based in Albany, N.Y.

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