Spellings May Replace Paige as Head of Department of Education

Published January 1, 2005

The expectation was that if President George W. Bush won re-election, he would “stay the course” with implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), his signature school reform law. The first weeks of Bush’s transition to a second term and the final days of the l08th Congress convened in lame-duck session brought signs that “stay the course” won’t mean status quo.

Congressional negotiators reached agreement on a substantive reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an outcome that had eluded the House and Senate for almost two years. After an extraordinarily bitter presidential campaign, the reaching of a conference committee compromise on a range of prickly issues brought flowery tributes to bipartisan cooperation from both sides of the aisle. (See more about IDEA below.)

Meanwhile, a shakeup at the top in the U.S. Department of Education–Secretary Rod Paige departing, Bush policy advisor Margaret Spellings nominated to succeed him–prompted speculation as to what changes might be in store for federal education policy in Bush’s second term.

Paige a Choice Crusader

Rod Paige served as the seventh Secretary of Education since education became a Cabinet-level department under President Jimmy Carter. When the Senate confirmed Bush’s nomination of Paige on January 21, 2001, a number of “firsts” were put in play. He was the nation’s first African-American education secretary and also the first superintendent of schools to serve in that post. Bush had admired Paige’s work as chief of the Houston public schools.

It soon became clear Paige’s appointment was far from window-dressing. While the major decisions about No Child Left Behind may have been made by the White House inner circle, Paige traveled the country tirelessly to promote the NCLB credo.

A son of segregated Mississippi, Paige spoke from the heart about the necessity of holding schools to account for academic performance–not just of the student body as a whole, but for each disadvantaged subgroup within the school population. Only through such close attention to specific need could the nation ever close the infamous achievement gap for underprivileged children, he believed.

As part of this crusade, Paige became one of the strongest advocates of school choice ever to lead the U.S. Department of Education. He has worked hard for expansion of public charter schools and the start-up of private vouchers for low-income families not served well by Washington, D.C. public schools.

Spellings an Accountability Advocate

To take over as Education Secretary at the start of his second term, Bush nominated Margaret Spellings, who was his trusted domestic policy advisor in the White House throughout his first term. For six years before that, when Bush was governor of Texas, she was his senior advisor with special responsibility for education policy. A graduate of the University of Houston, Spellings also was political director in Bush’s first successful gubernatorial run in 1994.

In Texas, Spellings was responsible for developing and putting into action the strong accountability system that eventually became the model for No Child Left Behind. At the White House, she has overseen work on a broad range of issues, including health care, criminal justice, the environment, welfare reform, and veterans affairs; however, implementation of education reform policy continued to be her specialty.

Upon her nomination, Spellings drew bipartisan praise on the Hill for her intellect and work ethic. Observers expect Spellings to be a strong advocate for standards and accountability, notably including Bush’s stated vow to extend NCLB testing into high school. School choice advocates, however, worried about the depth of her commitment to increasing parental options. She has supported charter schools but has not advocated vouchers.

Bipartisan Reauthorization of IDEA

With regard to the reauthorization of IDEA, the massive special education law affecting 6.7 million students, it passed with nary a partisan outburst. A cynical explanation would be that the measure was so watered down by compromise as to be non-controversial. Indeed, one of the boldest ideas–school choice for parents of special ed children, as advocated by Rep. Jim DeMint (who won election to a U.S. Senate seat from South Carolina in November)–was missing from the final bill. However, there appeared to be substantive changes. Those include:

  • Seeking to ensure reasonable discipline and safety by shifting the burden from schools to parents to prove that a child’s disabilities caused misconduct.
  • Reducing incentives to misidentify and label children as disabled.
  • Aligning IDEA with NCLB so as to ensure that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) address the academic achievement of special-ed pupils.
  • Improving early intervention so children can learn to read rather than being misidentified as needing special education.
  • Reducing litigation by creating opportunities such as mediation to resolve conflicts between parents and school personnel.

In the first IDEA reauthorization since 1997, the House and Senate also recommitted Congress to meeting by 2011 its original goal of the federal government covering 40 percent of the cost to school systems of providing special education. The current level is 18.6 percent. There may be less to that accord than meets the eye, because future spending increases still will be optional. Even with the federal share never exceeding its current percentage, federal spending on special education has risen from $2.1 billion in 1994 to more than $10 billion in 2004.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.