At a discussion Thursday at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings spoke with moderator and Fordham President Chester Finn, Jr. about the Republican Party’s direction on education policy.
Alexander, who served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, said politicians have waged a “war on parents” in recent years, and that the public education system could benefit from a renewed focus on engaging families, giving parents more information about schools and choice on what schools their children attend.
Alexander did not explain how he would focus schools on family engagement, or whether the state or federal governments should be promoting new policies in this area. Engaging families in the education process is something we’ve written about extensively here at Early Ed Watch, whether it be through evidence-based home visiting programs for first-time parents or policies that encourage schools to foster better relationships with parents and involve them in classroom activities.
Both Alexander and Spellings spoke about the need to provide parents with more, better information on local schools; pre-K and child care are ripe for improvement in this area, but it’s unclear when policymakers will be ready to invest in new strategies.
The event was a stark reminder of the divide within the GOP on education policy. Spellings spoke as a moderate, touting the Republican Party’s ability to support both fiscal prudence and “the values of opportunity.” She expressed concern about the content of many Republican governors’ No Child Left Behind waivers, where she sees “a real retreat from subgroup accountability,” the requirement that student achievement move forward for poor students, racial minorities, English language learners and the disabled.
Alexander expressed sympathy with the stance taken by many Republicans, particularly those affiliated with the Tea Party movement, that the federal government should abolish the Department of Education and leave states and school districts to make their own education policy. “I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool,” Alexander said. He boasted of his attempt in the early 1980s to convince President Ronald Reagan and others to propose that the federal government alone fund Medicaid in exchange for the states exclusively funding education without any federal assistance.
All three panelists expressed frustration with Congress’s inability to move forward on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, which has been due for reauthorization since 2007, and which Finn suggested might be the most stalled piece of legislation in the notoriously gridlocked Congress.
Democrats are divided on education, too, especially when it comes to issues like charter school expansion and teacher evaluation and pay tied to student test scores, which teachers’ unions have historically opposed. When Congress does take up the debate on NCLB -- which Alexander said would have its best chances for reauthorization during the beginning of next year, after Election Day -- both parties will need to cope with deep internal divides on what the next iteration of No Child Left Behind should include.