President Bush on Wednesday named White House domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings to be the nation's eighth education secretary. "The issue of education is close to my heart and on this vital issue there's no one I trust more than Margaret Spellings," Bush told her.
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."
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."
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."