Mary Katharine Ham

So, I’m set to meet the Secretary of Education, right? What should I expect? Stern school-marm? Sugar-sweet Texan teacher? I find a combination of southern style and Condi’s steel. Margaret Spellings, a mom of school-age children herself, and one of the architects of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, looks the part of a woman of this administration—fierce and feminine.

A sure tone and a bright-red blazer ensure that she can command a room and a conversation without succumbing entirely to either Washington’s drab spirit or its sad sartorial sense.

At any rate, she comes across, like any good principal, as a woman not to be messed with. But this is Washington, and here, everyone gets messed with. Right now, Spellings and the president are facing conservative opposition to the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act—a national accountability program for public schools that the president calls a cure for the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and many conservatives call a hard boondoggle of big government.

Five years into the program, Spellings said it has given America a benchmark for success it’s never had before.

“Without assessment, we don’t know where we are… We’ve tried the ‘pass the money out and hope for the best’ strategy,” she said. “Now, you can use the information to improve and manage the system. We can be precise about the cure.”

But conservatives like Jim DeMint and John Cornyn believe NCLB’s method of getting such information has taken control away from those who know best how to solve education problems—cities and states—while imposing a mountain of paperwork on teachers. They’re proposing a conservative alternative to NCLB called A-PLUS that would give some of that control back. The bill has more than 50 co-sponsors.

John Cornyn spoke about the A-PLUS plan at The Heritage Foundation last month:

Too often, what passes for educational reform results in mandated bureaucracy in education, thus creating a spider's web of federal regulations with which the states are required to contend. In Florida alone, former Governor Jeb Bush has observed, "Though the federal contribution to education in Florida is small—only about seven percent of total educational spending—it takes more than 40 per–cent of the state's education staff to oversee and administer federal dollars."

Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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