Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was the guest at a Thursday luncheon for reporters sponsored by the Monitor.
Spellings's irreverent wit and plain speaking are a major change of pace for a department formerly headed by Elliot Richardson, Caspar Weinberger, and Roderick Paige, none of whom was well known for his fun side. The department has an annual budget of $71.5 billion and a staff of 4,500. [Editor's note: When Weinberger and Richardson each headed federal education policy, it was as secretary of the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.]
Margaret Spellings has a lifelong connection with education - in fact, her parents were students at the University of Michigan when she was born. Her parents moved to Texas when she was in the third grade.
Secretary Spellings graduated with a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Houston. She served as a political adviser and later as chief education adviser to George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas. Before joining the Bush team, she had been associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards. She joined the White House staff in 2001 and was confirmed as Education Secretary in January 2005.
Ms. Spellings came to Washington as a single mom with two daughters and has since remarried. Her older daughter has just enrolled as a freshman at Davidson College while her younger daughter attends a public school in the Washington area.
Here are excerpts from her remarks:
On her feelings about the major political problems President Bush and the White House staff are facing:
I do talk to the folks over at the White House regularly but it is different. I am not there every day for 14 hours a day living and breathing in that organic mechanism called the White House.... I am concerned about, just as you all are, my colleagues, my former colleagues and my current colleagues. I want the best for them.
On the controversy over the nomination of her close friend, Harriet Miers, to the US Supreme Court:
I am disappointed at the way she is being treated because I think a lot of people don't know her as I do - which is that she is one of the smartest people I have ever worked with.... She is extremely hardworking, extremely intelligent, very fact-based, extremely open-minded, very thorough....
You'll remember Miss Dove, remember [the 1955 movie] "Good Morning, Miss Dove," the beloved teacher that was kind of a knuckle rapper but you didn't want to disappoint and she had a huge heart and was very much a schoolmarm. Harriet is very proper and dignified. I don't think I have ever heard her say a cuss word in the entire time I have known her. I am sure she cannot say the same thing about me.
On the students displaced by hurricane Katrina:
[There were] 372,000 students initially displaced... We have not modified our number in the administration as to how many people we think are affected by this... It is about 372,000 who were originally displaced [including] about 72,000 students in higher education. This is highly fluid, obviously, these students are highly mobile. You have got mother here, dad there, and big sister over there and little brother over there.
On her response to critics of the No Child Left behind program:
[On Wednesday, federal test data showed the nation's students getting better at math while reading performance improved slightly in fourth grade but slipped in eighth grade.] I think the core principles of No Child Left Behind work, I absolutely do. And I think the people who adapted and adopted as early as possible have and will see results before those who did not. As you all know, our student body gets more diverse by the year, so the work is getting harder, if you will, and the results are improving.
On the process of selecting a college with her older daughter, now a college freshman:
It is a highly confusing process. It is one of the most expensive things in this case, although it doesn't always have to be that way, obviously, if you are going to the local community college. And one of the most important decisions that a famiy is going to make and a young adult is going to make. And how did we do it? She 'got the feeling.'