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 a shock to the system in some places, and it took them a while to get it fully implemented.

ES: If all the statistics and indicators are what you say they are, why is there not a greater sense out here in the world of good news happening in education?

MS: Because this is the uncomfortable transition period in which grown-ups have to change.

ES: Change expectations? Change actions? Change worldview?

MS: All of it. Change expectations in this sense: I know you have two kids, Evan. If their teacher said, “We think we can get them on grade level by 2014,” your head would spin off.

ES: I wouldn’t accept that level of customer service in any business, so why should I accept it in the schools?

MS: Absolutely. The expectation for your kid and my kid should not be different from the kid in East Austin or Laredo. And behaviors have to change. We’re going to have to find ways to get our best teachers doing the most challenging work. We often do just the opposite. If you have a Ph.D., you’re at Cream Puff High, and if you’re brand-new, you’re assigned to the most challenged educational setting until you wash out.

ES: How do you reverse that? How do you make it so that the Ph.D. is motivated to gravitate to the school most in need?

MS: Without accountability, we had no motivation to even ask that that occur, because achievement levels didn’t matter enough for us to wonder why we should try to get them over there. We’re going to have to do things like reward teachers for doing the most challenging work and reward them when they get results with kids. We’re going to have to break down some of the barriers we’ve put up that prohibit expertise from coming into our schools. We have to find ways to get capable, able people in our classrooms.

ES: This sounds expensive at a time when, at the federal level, spending is being criticized and at the state level, people are walking around with their pockets turned out.

MS: Because of all this information, we can be much more strategic and precise and effective about how we spend money. We need to look at the data and say, “Do we have a problem with Hispanic math or third-grade reading for African Americans? How does the Metroplex look compared to rural Texas?” We can micro-target resources as opposed to putting the money out there and hoping for the best.

ES: Are there success stories that can be modeled in places that aren’t making the grade?

MS: That’s one of the things that the federal government should do better. The states likewise. Now that we know who’s developed best practices, let’s tell the rest of the world. If we have the cure for cancer, let’s tell everybody, right? But there’s a little bit of the “not invented here” mentality that we sometimes have to break through.

ES: You really think there’s enough money between what the federal government has allocated and what the states can afford to solve the problems you’re talking about?

MS: Obviously resources are an issue. And sure, we need to spend more money. The president is calling for an additional $406 million for Title I, $607 million for Reading First, $337 million for IDEA [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act]. I’m not aware that the state of Texas has ever appropriated less money for education than the previous year. But, you know, how much is enough?

ES: Well, if one were a critic of No Child Left Behind, one would say “enough” begins with as much as you mandate. A criticism that has come your way is that you put in place a program with certain mandates that cost X but then only partially fund it and tell the states, basically, “Deal with it.”

MS: Federal policy works like this: If you want to take our money, these are conditions that have to be met. For the first time in the history of the world, we put a real condition in place: grade-level achievement by 2014. You and I agree that’s quite a modest thing to ask for.

ES: Some might even say you’re slow-playing it.

MS: Yeah, although in the education community you hear just the opposite: “Oh, my God! Do you know how many fill-in-the-blank kinds of kids we have in Texas? There’s no way we can get them up to grade level.” If you want our money, these are the rules of the game.

ES: Right. But again, the states might fairly come back to you and say, “Okay, we get it. If you’re going to give us the money, we have to do what you tell us to do. But you’re not giving us the money—you’re giving us half the money. We have to find the other half ourselves.”

MS: We have been a minority investor in public education at the federal level forever, and that will continue to be the case. It’s 8.3 percent. The bulk of the resources has and always will come from the states.

ES: Do you think that’s an okay state of affairs?

MS: I think it’s the right calibration based on the policy we now have. We have a system that says to states, because they are the primary investors, “You set the standards. You devise the assessments around them. You decide what a passing score is. You tell us your graduation rate and how many kids have to congregate before the group of students even counts for accountability purposes.”

ES: And yet there are states that have said, “You’re asking us all to adhere to the same cookie-cutter standard.”

MS: That is absolutely not the case. In fact, on the other side, some criticize us for giving too much local latitude. They say we need national curriculum standards.

ES: Let me ask you about the thing that we have heard almost since the moment the phrase “No Child Left Behind” came together and that is “too much of an emphasis on testing.” All over Texas over the past couple of election cycles, Democratic candidates have, to a person, said, “We’re going to end all this testing.” They all think they can somehow run against you.

MS: We tried for forty years to put the money out and hope for the best, and lots and lots of kids were left behind. It didn’t work. If someone can show me a way that we’re going to attend to the needs of kids without finding out where they are, without diagnosing the problem, I’m all ears. But it’s not possible. And I worry that the people who allege these things really are more worried about what it means for them: “Are people going to know how well I’m doing—or not doing?” It’s a bit of a red herring.

ES: The outcome of all this, at the end of your time as secretary, will be what? What do you want said about your tenure?

MS: That we changed the game in education. That we changed the conversation. That our approach was a fundamental and profound historical shift. That we finally looked ourselves in the mirror and said, “You know what? We really care about poor kids. And we’re gonna start to do the hard work on their behalf.”

ES: Which of the problems that you’ve attacked during your tenure would you like to have gone further down the path toward solving?

MS: Couple of things. One is what the president calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” No Child Left Behind is the bare minimum, the least we can do for kids. Grade level by 2014 is quite a low standard in many states, and there are lots of policy levers that get twisted to exempt kids from even that scrutiny. That this law is being castigated as unreasonable, undoable, and unnecessary is outrageous. From a more policy-wonkery point of view, we have to get to a place where we personalize instruction and allocate resources in more-strategic ways. We have to get assessment data to teachers in real time so they know that Evan needs help on fractions and Lauren needs work in long division and so that technology can help them act on what they know.

ES: You didn’t mention the dropout problem. There’s a lot of chatter around it—how pronounced it is and that the states game the numbers so they appear to be lower.

MS: This is another place where I wish I had done more. We haven’t diagnosed the problem adequately, and—guess what?—we don’t have a cure. Part of holding ourselves accountable is transparency, truth in advertising around dropout rates. That’s something I’m looking at.

ES: Can’t you go to Robert Scott, the head of the Texas Education Agency, and say, “Look, cut the funny business. The community is never going to fully appreciate the enormity of the problem if you keep artificially lowering the numbers”?

MS: I can. I was with Robert Scott today. I was with the education chief in Oklahoma yesterday. I’m having that exact conversation.

ES: Would you have any hesitation about putting your own kids in Texas public schools?

MS: No. I’ve had my kids in public schools most of the time, except for in high school, when they were in Catholic school. When we moved from Texas to Washington, my daughter Mary went immediately to our local public school, but it wasn’t a good transition. Freshman year, girl, cross-country move—you know, she needed to be in a different environment.

ES: So you don’t begrudge a parent that individual choice? You’re the chief advocate for public education, but you’re also a mom and a member of the community. You’re realistic about these things.

MS: You bet. We want kids to get a high-quality education wherever they can find it.

ES: What are you going to do in the last months of the Bush administration?

MS: Travel around and make sure No Child Left Behind works as well as it possibly can. Because I know, having been there on the first day of the presidential term, that the new president is not going to show up and work on George Bush’s number one domestic priority. It’s going to be tough to get the law reauthorized in an election year. I’m certainly not putting all my eggs in that basket.

ES: They’re going to turn you into a political football.

MS: I certainly want to make sure that, administratively, we’ve done our homework.

ES: Has this been a fun time in your life?

MS: Absolutely.

ES: At the level you’ve operated, there’s an awful lot of pressure. You don’t strike me as the kind of person who would particularly enjoy wearing battle armor.

MS: I believe in this. I love George Bush—I’ve been as loyal to him as any person around—but I believe strongly in the soap I’m selling, in No Child Left Behind, and I think Americans believe that education is the great equalizer. It is what we do that other countries haven’t done. It’s our shared value as Americans. It’s why we are the world’s innovator. Shame on us if we stop paying attention to it.

ES: What’s the mood like in the White House? We’re halfway through an election cycle in which virtually no Republican candidate has mentioned George Bush’s name, and the president’s approval rating is not as high as he would like it to be or you would like it to be. And we’re at the end of the second term of an administration in which the wheels have come off.

MS: I can tell you that we at the Department of Education are in full swing, and the president admonishes all of us to sprint to the finish. My hope is that we’ll sprint beyond the finish, building the culture and goodwill around this law.

ES: You’ve known the president for a long time. How’s his mood? Does he seem like the same guy you knew so well back in Texas?

MS: Of course he’s changed. We’ve all changed in the fourteen years I’ve worked for him. He’s grown. He’s learned a lot. He’s worn the war and the responsibility of that and the sacrifice personally. But he’s also still the same old George Bush, with the same kind of impish sense of humor and fun personality. Anyway, this idea that it’s bad to change is ridiculous. I hope to heck I’ve changed, matured, and become wiser.

ES: You came into the job a person very committed to policy. Do you go out as a serious person and stay in the policy arena? Do you return to Texas and, as has been rumored, run for office?

MS: I hope I’m still a serious policy person. The opportunity I’ve had is to go from behind the scenes into a more public role. I’ve enjoyed that very much, and I think it’s necessarily been a combination of things, a marrying of the policy and communications imperatives. I hope that whatever future I have will include both dimensions. And I hope it will include getting back to my beloved home state.