With Dick Riley it would have been Irish Spring. Last week Secretary Spellings compared No Child Left Behind to Ivory Soap, saying it was 99.9 percent pure.
Leave aside that it’s kind of a weird analogy (was she saying we need to clean up American education? Or was it subliminal because she finds reporters dirty?), I’m not sure it’s right either. I think you can argue that the framework of the law is 99 percent pure, but not the law itself. The framework, the choice – accountability marriage, is inescapably the direction that American K-12 education is heading. While some dead enders don’t want any choice at all, or conversely want a purely choice-driven system, greater choice married with am emphasis on common standards is the rough consensus reflected in policymaking today. So, the arguments are about the latitude of choice (public or private) and who gets to define standards (state or national). In other words, they’re within that general framework.
No Child, for its part, is a rough stab at moving federal policy to reflect this new consensus. It would have been amazing for it to be 99 percent pure in terms of the policy. After all, what other large scale domestic policy legislation got it 99 percent right the first time? The original ESEA took a few reauthorization cycles to iron out the kinks (which, of course, created some new kinks). That’s par for the course with national policymaking, especially for a diverse set of providers like the states and local school districts that make up our education “system.”
The Secretary would be better served by offering the media and the public that context. Rather than falling into the rhetorical trap laid by the law’s opponents about whether the law is perfect or not, she should put the issue in the broader context of ongoing policymaking: Of course there are problems, and the key thing is to work deliberately to address them and constantly strive to improve the policy.
Unfortunately, the Administration’s on again – off again attention to implementation makes that a harder case to make, but they still have 29 months on the job and the need to get it right on substance and rhetoric as best they can.