msnbc.com news services
updated 11/17/2004 1:08:54 PM ET 2004-11-17T18:08:54

President Bush on Wednesday nominated White House domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings to be the nation’s eighth education secretary. He also chose Harriet Miers, a longtime Texas associate, as White House counsel, a senior administration official said.

Miers would succeed Alberto Gonzales, nominated by Bush to be attorney general.

Formerly Bush’s personal lawyer in Texas, Miers came with the president to the White House as his staff secretary, the person in charge of all the paperwork that crosses the president’s desk. Miers was promoted to deputy chief of staff in June 2003.

Spellings' nomination came in a brief White House ceremony where the president said that "the issue of education is close to my heart and on this vital issue there’s no one I trust more than Margaret Spellings.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Spellings would replace departing secretary Rod Paige in the Cabinet-level job of overseeing the Education Department. Spellings, who was joined in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with her two daughters, became emotional as she accepted the post.

“I am a product of our public schools,” she said as her voice started to crack. “I believe in America’s schools, what they mean to each child, to each future president or future domestic policy adviser and to the strength of our great country.”

To the president, Spellings delivers exactly what he expects from schools: results.

“We must ensure that a high school diploma is a sign of real achievement so that our young people have the tools to go to college and to fill the jobs of the 21st century,” Bush said. “In all our reforms, we will continue to stand behind our nation’s teachers who work so hard for our children.”

Most influential woman
As Bush’s domestic policy adviser, Spellings has helped shape the news while staying out of it herself. Karl Rove, the president’s political strategist, was quoted this fall as saying Spellings is “the most influential woman in Washington that you’ve never heard of.”

“She understands what he thinks. They’re very, very close,” said Sandy Kress, a lawyer who worked at the White House for Spellings when he was Bush’s senior education adviser.

Spellings worked for six years as Bush’s education adviser in Texas, pushing policies on early reading and student accountability. They became the model for the federal law, No Child Left Behind.

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She has overseen a range of domestic policy, from justice to housing, but schools are an issue of deep interest. In an online White House public forum, Spellings has said she’s been thrilled to take questions about the new law: “I love talking about education.”

No Child Left Behind, Bush’s first big domestic legislative victory, orders schools to show yearly gains among students regardless of their race or background.

The federal role in education has never been so big, and the president says his plans to expand the law “could move pretty quickly” in the new Congress.

“Do you remember the No Child Left Behind Act?” Bush said in his first news conference after his re-election, when asked how he would reach across party lines. “I think there’s the model I would look at if I were you.”

Yet some say that model needs much repair. Many Democrats who supported the law criticize what they call lackluster spending and enforcement under Bush’s leadership.

School choice boost
And with an expanded majority in Congress, some Republicans want Bush to put his power behind a more conservative school-choice agenda. That would mean a bigger push for private-school vouchers and charter schools, which are public but largely independent.

“We’re going to find out a lot about what George Bush is really all about,” said Andrew Rotherham, who directs education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank aligned with centrist Democrats. “He would be better remembered as the president who put in place the framework for closing the achievement gap — not the one who got a multi-city voucher plan passed, which is the base-pleasing stuff.”

More testing
Bush wants to extend his education law by requiring two more years of state math and reading tests in high school grades. That’s part of a broader promise to improve high school standards, graduation rates and the value of the diploma — all of which are welcomed, said Patty Sullivan, a leader of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Even with the larger GOP majorities in Congress, Bush still lacks the votes to halt Democratic delay tactics in the Senate.  Since the election, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on education, has signaled he wants to work with Bush to make early childhood learning a bigger priority.

There’s still plenty of room for bipartisan school progress, Kennedy said, “without taking divisive steps, such as diverting scarce public education dollars to private schools.”

Yet in the House, Education Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, will look for ways to work with Bush and others to expand school choice, spokesman David Schnittger said. Bush has won vouchers in the District of Columbia and transfers for students out of some struggling schools across the nation. The agenda also includes such items as extra pay for teachers whose students perform well. But given the deficit, spending won’t come easy.

Legislative backlog
“There won’t be many surprises on education,” Schnittger said, “but there will be a lot of action.”

That’s because Congress has a backlog of laws due for updates.

They include:

  • Head Start, the popular preschool program for poor children. Bush wants the program’s emphasis shifted toward literacy, and he favors giving states more control.
  • Higher education, where Bush has a series of college-aid plans and will push for greater accountability in how that money is spent.
  • Vocational education, the federal program that helps students prepare for trade and technical jobs. Bush wants to require more academic rigor from such schools receiving federal aid.

And then there is the question of what to do about No Child Left Behind, a matter expected to continue dominating the national conversation over schools.

Ongoing debate over No Child Left Behind
Although the law is lauded for its goals, Democrats and Republicans say some parts need work, including the way school progress is measured. The Bush administration has shown some flexibility but appears unwilling to adjust the law before its scheduled update in 2007.

“There is a range of concern out there, from serious and thoughtful to outrageous and disingenuous,” said Rotherham, a former adviser to President Clinton. “The administration has done a terrible job of distilling that. They need to rebuild the broad bipartisan coalition.”

Or not. Some Republicans say Bush can’t satisfy Democrats, particularly on funding, no matter what he recommends. They want the White House to be more proactive about No Child Left Behind and to keep shaking up what they deem to be a public education monopoly.

“My cardinal rule in Washington is you’re on offense or you’re on defense,” said William Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “They’re on defense too much.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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