Margaret Spellings: Obama has failed to lead on education

Sec. Spellings
Sec. Spellings

As the RNC wound down today, it took a sharp turn back towards partisanship in education reform, with former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings offering the week’s hardest knock on President Obama’s education record.

Former President George W. Bush reached across the aisle to work with the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and other Democrats to pass No Child Left Behind, said Spellings, who Bush appointed. And it’s no surprise, she said, that former Florida Gov. Jeb was the most successful education governor in recent times.redefinED-at-RNC-logo-snipped-300x148

“That’s because of leadership,” Spellings said at an education panel sponsored by Bloomberg Link and the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee for the RNC. “We have not seen that from President Obama on this topic.”

“If half the minority kids in this country were not getting out of high school on time, we ought to be marching in the streets,” she continued. “If half the school lunches served next week in these schools were tainted, we would be marching in the street. Michelle Obama would write a cookbook.”

Spellings criticized some aspects of Race to the Top, Obama’s signature education program, and panned his administration’s decision to grant No Child flexibility to a number of states.

“The Obama administration has given waivers out like candy,” she said. And the result has been a return to lower standards for poor kids.

Jeb Bush, who was part of the panel discussion, did not criticize Obama. But he also did not praise him as he has in the past, including earlier this week. He directed his fire at teachers unions.

“My personal belief is, we shouldn’t have public unions. We have 13,000 monopolies. That’s how we organize our schools and school districts,” he said. “They look themselves in effect in the mirror and they say, “Self, we want to give ourselves this.”

He added: “There is no kumbayah moment here (with unions). This is about the economic interests of adults. That’s not to say they don’t care about kids, but that’s not why they exist. They exist for the economic interest of their members. If you realize that, don’t get tied up in defining common ground. Push the envelope and then let them begin to deal with a different reality.”

The panel also included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

As a concluding question, all were asked what one thing they would do to boost ed reform if they were president.

Both Rice and Cantor said they’d push for expanded school choice.

“I would try to do something that signals very strongly that school choice is now the American Way,” said Rice, who also spoke movingly about school choice in her RNC speech Wednesday night. “I certainly wouldn’t try to undermine the D.C. hope scholarships, for instance. … We give Pell Grants to Notre Dame and Boston College, so clearly there’s no problem with federal funding for parochial schools. And yet we stir up all of these arguments about why federal funding can’t follow the kid” in K-12 schools.

Said Cantor: “The essence of the leadership, I believe, has to be about empowering parents” through vouchers or tax credit scholarships or some other mechanism. “Let’s realign sort of the purchaser, if you will, with the product supplier.”

Bush, who is speaking on the RNC stage later tonight, said he would turn education “into a cause rather than a political deal.”

“We have a problem right now with people saying … this is principally a problem of kids in poverty. And therefore, you know, it’s tough, it’s hard, it’s a real challenge,” he said. But “the best kids in America don’t do as well as the best kids around the world. The middle kids don’t do as well as they need to, to compete with the middle around the world.”

“We need an awakening. And I would use the bully pulpit to bring that awakening before it’s too late.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at