Spellings: Politics, lack of knowledge hurt school reform

‘Better informed’ leaders needed

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Ten years ago, former President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, garnered strong bipartisan support and passed the Senate on an 87-10 vote.

Congress is back at the drawing board, working on a policy overhaul. But this time, the “planetary alignment” between the parties from a decade ago is nowhere to be found, former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Monday.

“The kind of sea change we’ve seen … it’s so very different now. The old-time ‘80s orthodoxy from the Republican Party is back,” she said at a Bipartisan Policy Center education forum in the District.

Mrs. Spellings said tea-party Republicans — whom she called “federalists” — in the House and Senate want the federal government to decrease its footprint in virtually every area of American society. That attitude, she said, likely will make a compromise between conservatives and Democrats difficult to achieve.

President Obama has called on Congress to revamp NCLB before the start of the next school year. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, hopes to introduce a bill in the next few months.

But Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has said that though his panel is in the early stages of crafting a bill, he will not be bullied by the administration’s timetable.

Time might not be the biggest issue, however. Mrs. Spellings, who served as education secretary from 2005 to 2009 and as an adviser to Mr. Bush from 2001 to 2005, said many members of Congress simply don’t know enough to make sound decisions about education policy.

“I think we would all be well-served if the Congress got better informed about what the heck is going on. We have people on both sides of the aisle that don’t know an LEA [local education agency] … from the U.S. DOE [Department of Education],” she said. “Before they start writing laws for 50 million people, why don’t we get on the same level of understanding?”

The education battle isn’t playing out in Washington only. Across the country, states have become ground zero for reform.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ronald J. Tomalis said no one should be surprised by the intense back-and-forth taking place in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania and other states where big changes either are on the table or have been implemented already.

“I think education is, by and large, a political animal,” Mr. Tomalis said. “It’s kind of hard not to fight over some of the key issues.”

Pennsylvania, for example, is debating a comprehensive school vouchers program. Indiana lawmakers last week passed the biggest voucher bill in the nation’s history. In New Jersey and Wisconsin, new Republican governors want to tie teacher pay to performance, not tenure, and want to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees, including teachers.

“The governors around the country are aggressively reforming and balancing their budgets. They are [grounded] in reality … frankly, too often, the Congress is not,” Mrs. Spellings said.

As for specific reforms, panelists at Monday’s forum said they think technology must be a central component in educating the nation’s students. The traditional model of teaching students the facts of the American Revolution, for example, is quickly becoming outdated, said Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality at the National Education Association.

“The real question about technology is going to be … why are we asking students to learn what happened exactly in 1776 when they can find out in 30 seconds from Google?” Mr. Eubanks said.

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