Margaret Spellings

On No Child Left Behind.

Evan Smith: So here we are in the middle of a presidential campaign, and the Democratic and Republican candidates have been talking about health care and the economy and Iraq. They’ve been talking about everything in the world, it seems, except education. Is the problem solved? Did you fix the schools and I’m just not aware?

Margaret Spellings: Sadly, no. As you know, I worked for George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, and he talked a lot about education. He talked about the achievement gap, about things Republicans didn’t usually talk about. The standard shtick had been “abolish the Department of Education,” “no federal intervention”—that sort of thing. And that changed with Bush. This primary season looks to me more like business as usual. The Democrats are playing to the teachers’ unions, and the Republicans are talking about states’ rights, no intervention, cutting spending, et cetera. So we’re not talking about those things in the middle.

ES: Education has been such a constant in the conversation largely because of you and largely because of the law you’re most closely associated with, No Child Left Behind, which has been controversial in some quarters. Then again, how many education initiatives at the national level could people talk about by brand name until now?

MS: Zero. I think there’s a sense that, you know, love it or hate it, somebody’s been working the problem, that it hasn’t suffered from a lack of attention. And maybe that’s why it’s not a focal point in this campaign. Health care, I would say, is the opposite. There hasn’t been as much discussion or as much policy-making around health care, with the exception of the prescription drug benefit.

ES: Let me ask you the Ronald Reagan question: As far as public education goes, are we better off now than we were seven years ago?

MS: No doubt about it. I don’t have to make a case with anything other than data. The student achievement gap is closing—not everywhere, not always, but the trend line has reversed. We had a flat trend line for years, and all of a sudden it has started to tick upward, especially in states like Texas that more quickly adopted and adapted No Child Left Behind—like policies—annual measurement, holding yourselves accountable. Obviously it took us a long time. This law could not have passed through many state legislatures. It came as

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