President George W. Bush's education secretary stood up for the federal government's role in education, calling current politics on the issue a red herring.
At an event Thursday on education and U.S. competitiveness at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that rolling back the accountability aspect of federal education policy—as the current Senate bill does—would be a horrible idea.
"As we debate all of this 'who's in charge' stuff," Spellings said, referring to the argument over whether or not states are ready to take on the responsibility of student achievement and educator performance, "the thing that's happening is we're ignoring this moral and economic and national security imperative to educate many more kids to much higher levels."
Spellings—who helped develop the No Child Left Behind law as a policy adviser to Bush before she became his education chief—said the nation has done a great job of educating well-off students to high levels but a poor job doing the same for minority and low-income students.
She added that No Child Left Behind helped get the country on the road to fixing this problem through testing and national data collection. "Thirteen percent of our schools produce half the dropouts. We can drive to them; I can send you a list; we know [what] the principal's name is," Spellings said. "That's because of No Child Left Behind."
The law was due for updates in 2007 but has been caught in a congressional quagmire since then, and it is now out-of-date and wildly unpopular among educators and politicians alike. The Senate passed a bill out of committee last month that would remove the requirement for all students to test at grade level in reading and math by 2014 and allow states more leeway in turning around low-income schools. It would also remove a mandate for tracking and improving teacher performance.
Spellings says that bill "guts accountability."
The federal role has focused on assessment and transparency, and Spellings argued this role is already very small—especially when compared to other developed countries the United States is competing with in the global economy.
So arguing there is too much federal red tape and bureaucracy or that the Department of Education should be abolished "is just a red herring," she said, "a smokescreen ... to cut against or mitigate the goals of No Child Left Behind, which says we're going to get kids to grade level by 2014."
If an educator told a parent or grandparent that their student would be on grade level by 2014, Spellings said, "you'd have your child or grandchild in a new school that day because you want your child doing grade-level work while they're in that grade."
She added that assuming low-income or minority parents want any less for their kids is what her old boss, President Bush, used to call "the soft bigotry of low expectations."