Education pick comes from inside Bush circle
Margaret Spellings has deep Texas roots in educational reform, the model for 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
WASHINGTON — It's a studied art to be both influential and little known in official Washington, and Margaret Spellings, the president's nominee to be next US Secretary of Education, has mastered it well.
A close Bush aide for the past decade, most recently as assistant to the president for domestic policy, Ms. Spellings couldn't be picked out of a lineup by most of the nation's teachers, yet has had more to do with the new mandates in their classrooms than anyone in Washington. She also has the quality most valued in the Bush White House: unquestioned loyalty.
"She'll work for the president. There's no doubt about that," says Charles Miller, a Houston investor who worked closely with Mr. Bush and Spellings on education reform in Texas. "As Education Secretary, she'll be talking about his policies and what he wants, and they'll be in sync."
Analysts expect no major change in direction in education policy with Spellings at the helm of the department. Her main focus will be to protect the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act, the signature domestic achievement of the first Bush term.
"Since she helped to write the law, it's clear what Bush is doing is eliminating anybody he thinks is weak or would give him an independent opinion," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, an advocacy group for public schools. "He is putting in place all his close advisers who will be his agents, rather than independent advisers."
Off the record, many in the tight world of education in Washington say that Spellings has already been exercising an influential hand over operations in the Department of Education, even as she did when outgoing Secretary Rod Paige was the Superintendent of Schools in Houston and Bush was governor.
"Paige was a front man. He gave speeches, gave appearances, sold the president's line, but he had very little impact on policy," says Mr. Jennings.
Still, as the first Education secretary with experience in a classroom, Mr. Paige brought a level of gravitas to the job that appealed to teachers. Unlike Paige, Spellings has no experience managing a big organization, and the Education Department has been a challenge for anyone taking it on.
Congressional Republicans were so annoyed by the weight of bureaucracy in the Education Department that they proposed eliminating it in the Contract with America in the early 1990s.
Former Paige aide Beth Ann Bryan, who also once worked for Spellings and describes herself as a friend, says Spellings can be effective in this tough job. "Margaret is so fast, quick, decisive, savvy; she's so funny and really very normal," Ms. Bryan says. "She has no Potomac fever. She just wants the president's job on education to be done - and she's a great manager."
Spellings's close ties to President Bush began with her work for the Texas education reform movement as an aide to then Governor Bush. Texas business groups were alarmed that the schools weren't producing workers needed for the growing high-tech industries converging on cities like Houston. The new governor was looking for solutions and asked Spellings to help find them.
"The neat thing about Margaret is that she was open to listening to any idea, as long as you weren't wasting her time," says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.
She recalls her first meeting with Spellings, then Margaret LaMontagne, early in Bush's second term as governor. "Her first question to me was: 'Other than teachers' rights and money, because we know your position on that, if you could pass a bill that would make a difference for children, what would it be?' "
Ms. Fallon told her the need was to "stop moving them up to higher levels when they can't read." Spellings response: "What would you do?"
By the end of this - and countless other discussions - the Bush team in Texas had settled on a new social promotion policy to test children at critical points (grades 3, 5, and 8), evaluate their progress, and hold children back a grade, if needed. Other new legislation included the Safe Schools Act, which gave teachers the right to remove disruptive students from class, and a focus on early reading. "They liked common-sense ideas and reading programs that had some research base, rather than just giving the principal a new TV," says Fallon.
Focused and absolutely no-nonsense, Spellings was the gatekeeper for Governor Bush on education initiatives. As the governor's senior education adviser for six years, she helped develop the Texas Reading Initiative, the Student Success Initiative to end social promotion, and the Texas assessment and accountability system that was the model for the No Child Left Behind Act.
Spellings will probably win easy confirmation to her new post. She won an early vote of confidence from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who worked closely with the White House in an unusual collaboration on the No Child Left Behind Act.
On Tuesday, he described Spellings as "a capable, principled leader who has the ear of the president and has earned strong bipartisan respect in Congress."
In addition to presiding over adjustments to NCLB, the new Education secretary will be involved in extending its principles to the high school level, as well as working on new initiatives on early education. "The president seems to be taking some key departments and staffing them with very loyal people from his staff rather than independent-minded outsiders who might challenge his ideas or put some original ideas on the table," says Chester Finn, a former Education Department appointee and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
"NCLB was a terrific first draft of an important reform law, but it needs some revising," he adds. "Getting that done right without eviscerating it is a challenge for the next term, as well as extending it to high school. I'm sure Spellings will be good at that."
A product of the public schools, Spellings would be the second woman to head the Education Department. Some think that in itself is significant.
"One thing that went through my head was - oh good, a woman," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. "We've had some great leadershp at the Education Department over the years. But I think a strong woman leader who understands the concerns of parents as well as ... working directly with the president and his most senior team gives education reformers an inside track to White House."
• Staff writer Amanda Paulson contributed to this report.