Margaret Spellings vs. Mitch Daniels: Ms. Hubris vs. Mr. Humble

At first blush, it would appear that former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels have a lot in common. Both served as cabinet members in the George W. Bush Administration. Both are viewed as pragmatic centrists. And both hold strong school reform instincts.

But look closer and the similarities–on federal education policy at least–disappear.

In his big speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute, Governor Daniels went out of his way to stress that school reform is a work in progress. “The real test for us is dead ahead, and that is to implement these tools,” he said. “I will never stop learning about learning.”

Furthermore, while applauding President Obama and Secretary Duncan for their excellent work on education in general, and Race to the Top in particular, he indicated that a smaller federal footprint in our schools is appropriate.Here’s how Education Week reported it:

“There’s a lot more of it than we need,” he said of the federal education bureaucracy.

However, he said he supports “national standards,” and using the Education Department to help share best practices. And this very thrifty governor and former OMB director under President George W. Bush said he even supported the $4 billion Race to the Top, but only as a one-time endeavor to “try to jar the system into motion.” He viewed the idea of Race to the Top as “not bad.”

But he also said, “there’s been an incredible explosion of spending. We don’t need all of that.”

Daniels is humble about his accomplishments in Indiana and humble about what the feds can do to fix our schools. “I don’t have magic answers,” he said. “If I did I would have been here giving this talk years ago.”

Secretary Spellings will have none of it. In a new ESEA reauthorization proposal she penned for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week, she encourages Congress to double-down on No Child Left Behind and, if any, set its sights even higher on what Uncle Sam can do to improve the nation’s schools.

It starts with maintaining almost every detail of the current law as we know it: State standards and cut-scores benchmarked against the NAEP; a deadline for getting “all students to proficiency in reading and math by a date certain”; annual measurable objectives with “ambitious” timelines; consequences for (all) schools and districts not meeting their goals; public school choice and supplemental services for kids stuck in failing schools. And on and on it goes, traipsing through the greatest hits of NCLB ideas that have been tried and failed.And then she adds new mandates: teacher evaluations tied to federal teacher quality dollars; greater accountability at the high school level.

I suppose that Spellings deserves some credit for consistency. This is, almost verbatim, the same proposal she made a few years ago as Secretary. And yes, a couple of her ideas are praiseworthy: requiring greater financial transparency of schools and districts; consolidating duplicative programs. But overwhelming her proposal says about NCLB: Don’t end it, don’t mend it, extend it.*

And yet, Spellings writes, her blueprint builds “on what we’ve learned.” How so? What exactly has she learned? Does she acknowledge that the feds have been utterly incapable of implementing key parts of NCLB–such as public school choice and interventions in failing schools? Does she recognize that, while Uncle Sam can force states and districts to do things they don’t want to do, he can’t force them to do those things well? Does she even hint at the possibility that all of the prescription around timelines and objectives and mandatory consequences gave states a big fat incentive to maintain a low bar on the standards themselves–and that “benchmarking” against the NAEP proved utterly insufficient to thwarting this trend? If she’s “learned” so much, why hasn’t her position changed an inch since 2001?

For sure, I’m probably caught up in the excitement about Mitch Daniels just like many other right-of-center think tank types. If he were to run, to make it past the primaries, and get elected president (three HUGE ifs), who knows what his actual federal education policy would be. Maybe he’d come around to the Spellings line of thinking. So for now I’ll just celebrate the fact that a key Republican governor is willing to admit: None of us knows for sure what to do, so let’s give it our best shot and remain willing to change our minds along the way.

– Michael Petrilli

* A position, I must admit, I once held, while still an Administration official. I like to think I’ve learned a few things since then.

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