Alexander v. Spellings on the Federal Role in Education: A Viewer’s Guide

This morning, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is hosting what should be a significant and enlightening discussion with two former U.S. education secretaries from the Republican side of the aisle: Lamar Alexander and Margaret Spellings. They rank high on anybody’s short list (along with, say, Jeb Bush and Rod Paige) of most experienced, knowledgeable, and thoughtful GOP experts on K-12 education policy. They also represent two fast-diverging wings of the Republican Party regarding the appropriate federal role in education.

Senator Alexander—like every visible Republican in Congress—has deserted No Child Left Behind’s muscular federalism in favor of a state-centric approach. Secretary Spellings, on the other hand, has stoutly defended the law on grounds that such muscular accountability is needed at the building level if disadvantaged and low-achieving kids are ever to share in the American dream.

The Alexander view seems more popular within the GOP—observe, for example, Mitt Romney’s education proposals—but should it be? Is the GOP unwittingly giving aid and comfort to defenders of the educational status quo, the teachers unions foremost among them? And more importantly, is it giving up on the millions of America’s children who are still “left behind”?

These, and more issues, are “to be discussed.”

Here’s a preview of some of the specific topics to be debated, and statements that Spellings and Alexander have previously made on them.

Issue Margaret Spellings Lamar Alexander
The appropriate federal role in education “I believe that the federal government should play a discrete and powerful role in maintaining accountability, that it is time for us to get serious as individuals about putting our education system back on track, and that our focus must not be deterred by the main issue of improving the system for all students.” Ed Week 1-12-12 “Washington can’t create good jobs, and Washington can’t create good schools. What Washington can do, though, is shape an environment in which businesses and entrepreneurs can create jobs. It can do the same thing in education, by creating an environment in which teachers, parents and communities can build better schools.” New York Times 9-27-11
How far can states be relied on to do the right thing? In far too many places, state and local control means excuses, inaction, complacency, and union control.” Huffington Post, 10-3-11 “No Child Left Behind has made one thing clear: when it comes to education reform, the states are both highly capable and highly motivated.” New York Times 9-27-11
Whether federal sanctions should apply to just the lowest-performing schools. “[Officials in the Obama administration] are going to double-down on the lowest-performing schools and that’s fine, but they are letting up to 90 percent of them escape the net of accountability. Today, every one of the schools feels its [NCLB’s] enduring legacy.” Hechinger Report, May 17, 2010 “And we would make sure that some of that money went specifically to help states turn around the bottom 5 percent of their schools.” New York Times 9-27-11
Whether to keep NCLB’s “public school choice” and “supplemental services” provisions “My other main beef is they have killed off tutoring and public school choice options, so when you fail, unless you are horrifyingly low-performing, then really nothing happens to you. There are no consequences, and I think that’s terrible” Hechinger Report, May 17, 2010 [Senator Alexander’s ESEA reauthorization bills do not mandate public school choice or supplemental services for low-performing schools.]

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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