School & District Management

President Picks a Trusted Aide for Secretary

November 23, 2004 9 min read
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President Bush’s decision to nominate Margaret Spellings, his chief domestic-policy adviser, as the new U.S. secretary of education signals a steady course on education policymaking from the administration, analysts say. It also suggests that, even with Mr. Bush’s bold talk of rewriting the tax code and overhauling Social Security, education won’t be put on the domestic back burner.

The choice, announced by the president at a short ceremony in the White House’s Roosevelt Room on Nov. 17, was generally well received in Washington by Republicans and Democrats, as well as by education groups. Ms. Spellings was not expected to encounter resistance in the Senate, which must approve her nomination.

“The issue of education is close to my heart,” President Bush said with his designated successor to Secretary Rod Paige at his side. “And on this vital issue, there’s no one I trust more than Margaret Spellings.”

Two days earlier, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan formally announced what had long been been a matter for speculation in Washington: Mr. Paige would not stay in the Cabinet during the president’s second term.

Some other top officials at the Department of Education are also expected to depart, including Deputy Secretary Eugene W. Hickok.

Ms. Spellings, 46, is considered a principal architect of the president’s first-term education plans, especially the No Child Left Behind Act, and she will likely have his ear in a way that many observers say Secretary Paige has not.

She has a long history of working closely with Mr. Bush, going back to his first campaign for governor of Texas, and she was his education adviser when he held that office.

Assuming the Senate confirms her, Ms. Spellings will be the eighth education secretary since Congress created the Cabinet-level department in 1979.

“I think what the president has done is put his education policy quarterback at the helm of the Department of Education, as opposed to the White House,” said Vic Klatt, a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington and a former aide to Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“I think she’s going to grab hold of the reins there very quickly,” he said, “and go charging forward to implement the president’s agenda.”

A ‘Principled Leader’

At the announcement on Wednesday of last week, President Bush and Ms. Spellings made clear their commitment to following through on the No Child Left Behind law—a 3-year-old overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that imposes stiff demands on states and school districts to improve the achievement of all students—and to expand those demands still further.

“Margaret Spellings and I are determined to extend the high standards and accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind Act to all of America’s public high schools,” Mr. Bush said.

Secretaries of Education

If approved by the Senate, Margaret Spellings would become the eighth U.S. secretary of education. The top federal education post was elevated to Cabinet status in 1979 under President Carter.

Roderick R. Paige 2001-present,
nominated by President George W. Bush

Richard W. Riley 1993-2001,
nominated by President Clinton

Lamar Alexander 1991-1993,
nominated by President George H. W. Bush

Lauro F. Cavazos 1988-1991,
nominated by President Reagan; retained by George H.W. Bush

William J. Bennett 1985-1988,
nominated by President Reagan

Terrel H. Bell 1981-1985,
nominated by President Reagan

Shirley M. Hufstedler 1979-1981,
nominated by President Carter

“[Secretary Paige] has laid the foundation for leaving no child behind,” Ms. Spellings said, “and I pledge to honor his lifelong commitment to children by continuing the good work he started.”

In the months leading up to his re-election on Nov. 2, Mr. Bush unveiled a range of new education plans. Some target high schools, such as a Striving Readers initiative to help struggling middle and high school readers and plans to require more testing of high schoolers. (“Fine Line on Schools for Bush, Kerry,” Oct. 13, 2004.)

The selection of Ms. Spellings is getting a fairly warm reception in Washington, including from leading Democrats on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

“Margaret Spellings is a capable, principled leader who has the ear of the president and has earned strong bipartisan respect in Congress,” Sen. Kennedy, the senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in a Nov. 17 statement.

The American Federation of Teachers, which had endorsed Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in his bid to unseat Mr. Bush, also offered an upbeat take on Ms. Spellings.

“In our dealings with her, she has been accessible, open, and willing to listen,” Edward J. McElroy, the union’s president, said in a statement the same day.

Jay Levin, the director of government relations for the Texas State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, worked with Ms. Spellings during her days in Texas. He called her a “well-informed and tenacious advocate.”

“Many times we were on the same page, but at times we were on opposite sides,” Mr. Levin said. “She was a very worthy adversary.”

The selection is in keeping with others the president has made this month that also would shift trusted White House aides into his Cabinet. Mr. Bush has named Condoleeza Rice, his national security adviser, to be the next secretary of state; and he has nominated White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to become attorney general.

“There seems to be this tendency to move in loyalists … with strong personal ties,” said Frederick R. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Of Ms. Spellings, Mr. Hess said: “There’s not a doubt in anybody’s mind that she’s got the full backing of the president. … It might simplify things for everybody just because there will be fewer centers of power on education.”

“I think it’s a natural change in many ways, because she has been involved in this going back to Bush’s time in Texas,” said Christopher T. Cross, an education consultant and former assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. “She probably more than anybody is the intellectual master of No Child Left Behind.”

Mr. Cross said he believes the move suggests the president’s seriousness in generally staying the course with the bipartisan law, which has come under attack from many state policymakers and educators. It sends another message, too, he argued.

“It’s also a very good signal that education remains a very high priority for the administration,” Mr. Cross said. “This is not someone unknown … that can then be forgotten. Margaret will have immediate and easy access to the president, to every official in the White House.”

‘Humble and Decent’

The announcement that Mr. Paige, 71, who had earned a wide reputation as an effective education leader in his previous job as Houston’s superintendent of schools, would step down came Nov. 15 in a White House briefing by Mr. McClellan. But word had leaked out from an anonymous Bush administration official three days earlier.

“I did not come to Washington as a career move,” Mr. Paige said in a Nov. 15 statement. “I came to help President Bush launch No Child Left Behind and Reading First, and to help establish a culture of accountability in American education.” The federal Reading First program seeks to improve the literacy skills of children in grades K-3.

Rod Paige

President Bush praised Mr. Paige for the job he has done at the Education Department for nearly four years.

“[T]his humble and decent man inspired his department and implemented the most significant federal education reform in a generation,” Mr. Bush said when he announced Mr. Paige’s replacement. “The nation’s schools are stronger because of Rod Paige’s leadership.”

Mr. Paige was one of six Cabinet members, as of late last week, whose impending departures had been revealed as the Bush administration gears up for the president’s second term. He was confirmed by the Senate in January 2001.

Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman, said Secretary Paige was leaving of his own volition.

“The secretary has been wanting to leave for some time and has been trying to find the appropriate time to do so,” she said.

But others suggested that the move wasn’t entirely voluntary. Some education observers, who asked not to be named, said they had heard that the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., had phoned Mr. Paige recently to ask him to resign.

In his letter to President Bush, dated Nov. 5, three days after Election Day, Mr. Paige offered a fairly vague explanation of his plans.

“I believe … that this is an appropriate time for me to return to Texas where I can devote attention to a personal project,” he wrote. Mr. Paige said his desire was to leave office as of Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.

Asked to elaborate on the “personal project,” Ms. Aspey said: “He’s remodeling his house.”

The letter from Mr. Paige highlighted several achievements during his time in Washington.

“The No Child Left Behind Act’s (NCLB) reform initiatives have been well launched,” he said.

Mr. Paige also noted, among other accomplishments, that the Education Department was expected soon to receive its third consecutive “clean” audit by an outside firm. The department has a long history of financial-management problems, and Mr. Paige vowed shortly after taking office to tackle the matter.

The Republican chairmen of both the House and the Senate education committees issued statements last week praising Mr. Paige for his work at the department.

“He is a good man and a committed leader who will leave Washington having made a huge and positive difference for disadvantaged children, parents, teachers, and our nation’s future,” said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who heads the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Shortcomings Seen

But some Washington hands, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Paige had left something to be desired as the leader of his agency.

“I just didn’t think Paige had the reins,” said one education lobbyist. “The White House was in control.” The lobbyist described the department as “somewhat dysfunctional” under Mr. Paige’s watch.

“I think he has done only a minimum job,” said another education expert. “He made the mistake early on of not asserting his role as a secretary, and allowing other people [at the White House] to be shaping the course of things. … In many ways, I think he never recovered from that.”

Some suggested his lack of prior experience in Washington also hurt him.

Perhaps the secretary’s best-known misstep was calling the NEA a “terrorist organization” because of its resistance to the No Child Left Behind Act. He later apologized to the union’s members, although not to the union itself, for the remark.

The NEA offered a cautious response last week to the leadership change at the agency.

“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,” Reg Weaver, the union’s president, said in a statement last week. “We look forward to finding common ground with Ms. Spellings in her new role.”

Of course, for the education secretary to get things done, it will require cooperation from Congress. Republican gains in the House and the Senate will presumably make that easier, though not a cakewalk, for Mr. Paige’s successor.

Speaking on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on public television last week, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, praised Ms. Spellings. But he predicted that some of Mr. Bush’s education plans won’t have an easy time, particularly the proposal for expanded testing in high school.

“I think it’s going to have rough sledding not just on Capitol Hill, but I think in communities all across the country,” Mr. Miller said. He noted widespread complaints that Mr. Bush hasn’t backed sufficient funding levels to help carry out the NCLB law’s demands.

He added: “We are going to continue to argue with Margaret Spellings, with the president of the United States, and with many other people about the level of funding for this legislation.”

Staff Writer Michelle R. Davis contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as President Picks A Trusted Aide For Secretary

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