Spellings Seeks to Boost 'No Child'

Margaret Spellings called the 2002 law
Margaret Spellings called the 2002 law "George Bush's thing." (John Raoux - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings yesterday sought to reinvigorate support for the No Child Left Behind law even as the two major-party presidential candidates have distanced themselves from it. She contended that the law has helped improve public education and should be strengthened.

The 2002 federal law, considered one of President Bush's major domestic achievements, aims to have all public school students proficient in reading and math by 2014. But criticism has grown over the dramatic expansion of testing mandated under the law, and efforts to renew and revamp the law have stalled in Congress.

In a speech to educators and advocates from across the country, Spellings urged support for the law's core principle: requiring states, school systems and schools to show that students can handle reading and math at grade level.

"We must resist pressure to weaken or water down accountability," Spellings said in an education summit hosted in the District by the nonpartisan Aspen Institute. "To those who reject this goal, I ask, 'What's your answer?' I have yet to meet a parent who doesn't want their child on grade level right now, today, not 2014."

So far, education has been a low-key issue in a presidential campaign largely dominated by concerns over the slumping economy, the war in Iraq and rising oil prices. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), have said that they support the goals of No Child Left Behind but that the law needs to be revised. McCain, who voted for the legislation, has avoided mention of the law on the campaign trail, while Obama has sharply criticized its implementation.

In an interview last week, Spellings said she does not think either candidate would make renewal of the law a priority upon entering the White House. "It's not their thing," she said. "It's George Bush's thing. George Bush campaigned for president on No Child Left Behind."

The law requires annual testing of reading and math skills in grades three through eight and once in high school. Schools must show progress each year, as must groups of students, including ethnic minorities and disabled students. Certain schools that fall short face interventions.

The law has been credited with revealing pockets of underperforming students, even in some highly regarded school systems. But critics say that schools need more federal funding to carry out the mandate and that the focus on reading and math has pushed other subjects, including history, art and science, to the back burner.

In the Bush administration's waning months, Spellings has used regulatory authority to propose tweaks to enforcement of the law. In the most significant, all states would be required by 2013 to use the same formula to calculate the high school graduation rate.

Spellings also launched a pilot project in Maryland and several other states that moves away from the law's "pass-fail" system, which makes no distinction between a school in which many students fail reading and math tests and one that misses targets because a few students fall short.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company