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In Spellings, Bush turns to education confidant

Margaret Spellings, who managed President Bush’s school agenda from Texas to Washington, has emerged as a natural to be next education secretary.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Margaret Spellings, who managed President Bush’s school agenda from Texas to Washington, emerged as a natural to be next education secretary.

Bush plans to promote Spellings, his domestic policy adviser, to the Cabinet-level job of overseeing the Education Department and enforcing the nation’s sweeping school reform law. She would replace departing secretary Rod Paige if she wins Senate confirmation.

The move, confirmed to The Associated Press by an administration official Tuesday, is expected to be official as early as Wednesday.

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

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.”

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, that Spellings helped put together from the White House after Bush’s election in 2000.

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

Critical time
Spellings, 46, will take over leadership of the Education Department at a critical time. Many lawmakers, teachers and parents are frustrated by No Child Left Behind, which gives more attention to poor and minority kids but penalizes some low-income schools that fall short.

Paige, 71, also had a broken relationship with the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country. He once referred to the NEA as a “terrorist organization.”

“This is a great opportunity for the administration to change the tone of its discourse with the education community, particularly the 2.7 million members of the National Education Association who are in schools all over this nation,” said NEA president Reg Weaver. “We look forward to finding common ground with Ms. Spellings in her new role.”

Kress has known Spellings since she was a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards in the early 1990s. He called her practical, willing to take a partial victory, then come back and fight again for the rest of the win.

“She’s conservative, but she’ll listen to teachers, she’ll listen to administrators,” Kress said. “She wants to change the system, but she wants to talk to people in the system.”

The ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, said Tuesday that Spellings is “a capable, principled leader who has the ear of the president and has earned strong, bipartisan respect in Congress.”