Where’s Spellings?

It is just incredible to see, hear, and feel the energy that seems to surround the Fifth Annual National Reading First Conference.  Just walking the halls, and you hear educators talking about hiring the right people, selecting the right materials, capturing the right data, and just plain doing what works.  Those gathered in Nashville are committed to making a difference and improving reading ability in all of their students.  And at the end of the day, nothing is more effective promoting the value and impact of RF than hearing from those, like attendees, who are on the front lines.

This passion and commitment has been received by a strong group.  Deputy Education Secretary Ray Simon was here.  Reading First Director Joe Conaty has been presiding.  First Lady Laura Bush found the time to celebrate with her fellow educators, highlighting the success stories and calling on congressional leaders to support a program that deserves their full endorsement.

There is a glaring absence down here in Nashville, though.  Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.  This was a prime opportunity for Spellings to rise to the defense of RF.  It is an enthusiastic, supportive audience.  They are eager to hear from those in the know.  And they all want to do whatever they can to keep this valuable initiative moving forward.  It’s even a short flight over from Washington, DC.  Yet no EdSec.  (And for those worried she was too busy, her current public event calendar for the week shows NO PUBLIC EVENTS for the entire week.)

Spellings has been out there trying to protect the general NCLB concept, working with states to show some flexibility and defending the law to all that will listen — including Steve Colbert.  She’s opined on the need to protect vouchers in The Washington Post, penning an oped (one of only one or two a year the Post will allow from her).  She’s been out there on higher education, convening summits and establishing commissions.

On Reading First?  She wrote a couple of Dear John letters to Congress, the legislative equivalent of breaking up with someone via email.  No passionate defense of the program.  No rallying of the troops.  It is almost as if she wants to let the whole thing drop, now believing that RF simply isn’t worth the trouble.

That’s just a cryin’ shame.  As Bush’s domestic policy advisor, Spellings was one of the prime actors responsible for establishing the Reading First law.  In her years at the DPC, she was a passionate advocate for RF, doing what was necessary to get it off the ground and get funding and guidance to those who need it most.  In many ways, it is as much her legacy as it is the President’s.  But since moving over to Maryland Avenue, she’s seem to have forgotten WHY RF is so important and WHAT the U.S. Department of Education can do to ensure we achieve those objectives.

All of this presents us with one very clear reality — Reading First has run its course.  Despite the goals, despite the need, and despite the results, we must accept that RF is nearing the end.  The big question, then, for all of us is how do we extend the passion and commitment found here in Nashville, even when the funding faucets are shut off?

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