Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on the GOP and Pandemic Schooling

The Ann Arbor native sees ”no risk-free way” to get kids back to school
Margaret Spellings
Margaret Spellings photograph courtesy of Texas 2036

Few Americans have quite the GOP bona fides of Margaret Spellings, the nation’s eighth secretary of education. She rose to prominence helping then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas devise school reforms that would become the basis for the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act during his presidency. Later, she served as president of Bush’s foundation and library.

Yet Spellings, who was born in Ann Arbor while her father was earning a doctorate in geology at the University of Michigan (the family later moved to Texas), is among the many old-line Republicans who are unhappy with the current administration. In Spellings’ case, the distress is amplified by dismay over what she considers inadequate guidance from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for schools facing the start of a school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s why she joined up with Texas 2036, a think tank for centrists seeking to put forth policy ideas that can draw bipartisan support.

In fact, Spellings, 62, and Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan have joined forces this summer to offer their suggestions, she says, to fill the void coming from Washington. She spoke with us in late July about that as well as her Michigan roots and her assessment of the current GOP.

Hour Detroit: What were the differences between growing up in Michigan and then Texas

Margaret spellings: Oh, gosh. Obviously, the weather. As a young child, I remember snow, which we don’t have in Texas. And that university community, that small-town feel, whether it was Ann Arbor or when my grandmother lived in Wayne. Houston is big and sprawling and always has been. In the early 1960s, Ann Arbor wasn’t.

Do you regard yourself as a Texan and a Midwesterner?

I really do claim Texas as my home state. But I have a lot of affection and affinity and respect for Ann Arbor in particular and the great university that is the University of Michigan — so much so that my child went there.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the GOP?

It’s regrettable. Americans yearn for their elected leaders coming together to solve problems, and they understand that the dreaded c-word, compromise, is necessary to advance the interests of the American people. As my youngest daughter tweets, SMH. Shaking my head. For somebody who worked for the Republican Party of Texas on a couple of occasions and worked for two Republican governors and served eight years for a Republican president, no, I don’t recognize a lot of what I hear and see.

Did you vote for President Trump in 2016?

I’d rather not say.

Will you vote for him this year?

No.

Will you vote for Joe Biden?

I haven’t decided.

How are Betsy DeVos and the president handling the question of how or whether to open schools this fall?

What came out of the administration was either untimely — i.e., too late — or not useful locally. The CDC guidelines only came out last night. Schools for months have been thinking about and planning for fall returns based on local health conditions and their populations and their workforce, and rightly so. One thing that would have been useful was for the administration to convene experts in facilities planning and mental health and health experts and on and on. Not that it would be a directive, but guidance and useful expertise would have been helpful. Alternatively, people have had to invent all of that on their own.

You have said kids can and must go back to school, but many school districts are opening virtually.

Paramount to that is recognition of the local conditions and adaptability. In Texas, our commissioner has said pick a mode — online, blended, or in-person — for a grading period. You can change your mind — just give us some notice. All policymakers recognize we can’t sit in our state capitals or in Washington, D.C., and say, “You must go back to school even though you live with a cancerous, diabetic grandmother or whatever.” But I don’t want it to get lost in all this that the National Academies of Science and the American Academy of Pediatrics are very concerned, as am I, about the lack of productive learning. Teachers are the first adults to observe issues related to child abuse, hunger, or mental health, not to mention learning issues. To the maximum extent possible, students need to be with their teachers and learning with their peers. There is no risk-free way to do that in fall 2020, but that is the balancing act.

Has anyone in the federal government asked for advice from you or Secretary Duncan?

No. That’s not their way in terms of the pandemic or otherwise. [DeVos] probably doesn’t feel like she has any reason to be in touch with us, I guess.

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