Published Online: May 3, 2005
Published in Print: May 4, 2005, as Barbed Opinion

Federal File

Barbed Opinion

Spellings Lets Loose With Strong Words on Agency’s First-term Officials

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Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has come out swinging, and her tough stances are rankling some former officials in her department.

In an April 24 op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle, President Bush’s second-term education secretary excoriated first-term Department of Education officials for their decisions surrounding the agency’s public relations arrangement with commentator Armstrong Williams. ("Report: Williams Contract a Waste, But Didn’t Break Law," April 27, 2005.)

“There are moments in life where one is left mouth agape at how decisionmakers can show a lack of critical judgment,” she wrote in the Chronicle. “This is one of them.”

Ms. Spellings also took her predecessor, Rod Paige, to task, though not by name, for approving the hiring of Mr. Williams to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

“It is the secretary who must be careful about and is ultimately responsible for the signals that his/her office sends,” she wrote in the newspaper.

And earlier, in an April 15 response to a report on the Williams matter from the Education Department’s inspector general, which found mismanagement but no ethical or legal violations with the arrangement, Ms. Spellings criticized “serious lapses in judgment by senior department officials” and made a point of saying that those officials “no longer work at the department.”

The secretary’s jabs have many first-term Education Department officials who have since left the department feeling prickly.

Ms. Spellings’ comments are “almost a gratuitous slap at the prior leadership of the department,” said one former official, who asked not to be named but added that he agreed with her criticism.

Ms. Spellings has been mum on the inspector general’s finding that her chief of staff, David Dunn, who was working with her at the White House when the Williams deal was made, knew of the arrangement.

The irritation among former top officials began April 7, when Ms. Spellings outlined new flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law. But in comparing the law’s evolution to an infant’s growth, she described the first few years of the law’s existence as the “terrible two’s.”

Some former top department officials, both publicly and privately, have said that the White House and Ms. Spellings, as President Bush’s chief domestic-policy adviser, had blocked them from adopting some of those measures during the first term.

“Frankly,” said another former department official who asked not to be named, “it’s taking people aback to see the way she’s positioning herself on these issues.”

Vol. 24, Issue 34, Page 32

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