Margaret Spellings: How will she lead?

    Three months after what was arguably the most contested and fiery election in history, the jihad between liberals and conservatives rages on for millions of Americans.

    Ask a Democrat about any of President George W. Bush’s policies, from the largest issues (WAR!) to the smallest details (use of silverware in the White House), and an inevitable landslide of talking points follows. In a presidency that boasts the highest approval rating in history from one-half of the country, and the lowest approval rating in history from the other half, every single policy has become a politicized battleground where defamed Democrats can attempt to “take back the country” from their conservative propagandist oppressors, and Republicans can “preserve family values” from the influence of dissident rebels who seek to poison the minds of their constituents.

    The issue of education has always been a political one — most allocations of funding for stagnant bureaucracies are — but the battle was taken to a new level last November with Bush’s nomination of Margaret Spellings as secretary of education, replacing previous secretary Rod Paige, who resigned under mysterious circumstances shortly after Bush’s re-election. The main battle, of course, involved “No Child Left Behind,” the dubiously funded standardized-testing program which, depending on who you ask, has either bankrupted our public school system by shoving another bureaucratic hurdle down its throat or brought our schools up in quality by holding every teacher accountable for the performance of the students.

    As the author of the Texas program which formed the basis for “No Child Left Behind,” Spellings cannot help but attract this controversy, but certain other factors in her background turn this political battle into an all-out culture war. As the only education secretary in history with primary-school-age children at the time of her appointment, Spellings is a perfect figurehead for the “family values” banner. Yet, when one of those children also attends a private Catholic school, Spellings’ lack of faith in the public school system for her own children makes her an equally important symbol for the “rich elitists running the White House” banner. One could only hope that, in her role as chief educator of the nation, Spellings could attempt to play down these conflicting political ideologies and deal with the administrative problems plaguing “No Child Left Behind,” a goal that both sides can agree on.

    But in the arena of public education, hopes can never be fully realized, and in Spellings’ case they are dashed entirely. Earlier this month, Spellings criticized PBS for planning to air an episode of “Postcards from Buster” that featured an animated bunny talking to a family with two mommies. For days, pundits exploded on both sides with either rage or admiration. PBS, in a surprisingly “edgy” move, offered the episode to any TV station willing to snub the Department of Education. And, through all of the mayhem and shouting, nobody seemed to notice that the sweeping reforms of “No Child Left Behind” promised by Bush simply did not happen, whether these reforms were of the liberal sort (fund the program “properly”) or the conservative sort (help individual schools “comply” with the program). A separate scandal, involving “fake” reporters and pundits paid off to endorse “No Child Left Behind,” only added fuel to the fire.

    This is the danger of such politicized policy; while pundits may inflate their egos by crusading against one option or the other, the policy itself nearly always suffers a lack of results. This spells doom anew for “No Child Left Behind,” as well as for another program that hits a little closer to home: Pell Grants.

    Pell Grants, federal godsends for those who qualify for, are a crucial part of financial aid for many of our nation’s brightest who could otherwise not afford secondary education. Since anything less than a masters’ degree qualifies our nation’s students for little more than a rewarding career in the food service industry, programs like Pell Grants are necessary components for ensuring that American industry remains competitive in the international market. Yet, with all of this nonsense going on in the Department of Education about standardized testing and lesbian cartoons, precious little effort is spent on Pell Grants, a service that offers to move many students above the food service level.

    Even when scant effort is being put into Pell Grants, the talons of political pandering are seldom far behind: According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (http://www.nasfaa.org/publications/2004/gtaxtablesupdate122304.html), the only major action seen from the new Department of Education was a revamping of tax tables that laid the framework for some major-league partisan squabbling. Of course, conservatives and “taxpayer groups” love the idea of revamping the tax basis for financial aid; just look at the wonders it has done for their base with the recent tax cuts on the national level. Of course, liberals and students equally hate this idea, as it stands to leave behind tens of thousands of children who no longer meet the tax requirements to receive aid.

    Spellings has an interesting, if partisan, opinion on this tax change: When asked if the government was, in fact, “slashing” Pell Grants, she stated that if Bush’s budget is passed, it would instead increase Pell Grant funds by six percent. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/ask/20040514.html). The obvious question is, why hold the future of Pell Grants hostage to a somewhat unrelated, hopelessly partisan issue? Perhaps Spellings feels that coercion is the only method available to bridge the ideological gap between herself and the liberals on Capitol Hill. Whether you agree with this method for funding Pell Grants or not, you cannot deny that it follows her general trend of foolishly inviting partisan battles.

    So then, what is the solution to these problems with “No Child Left Behind” and Pell Grants? None exists. For liberals and conservatives will fight until the end of days, when the earth will open up to swallow them both. Well, maybe not, but it would take an act of God (and not just the conservative deity or the liberal deity, but the fire-and-brimstone one) to take politics out of the Department of Education and get it back to the business of improving schools in a nonpartisan, or at least nonpoliticized, fashion. Perhaps a change of power in four years could yield some positive results, but more likely than not one will find the conservatives on the other side of the fence, protesting “liberal” educational policy.

    Public education is doomed, children. Better invest in real estate instead.

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