School & District Management

Spellings Would Bring Acumen, Pragmatism to Secretary’s Position

By Michelle R. Davis — November 23, 2004 6 min read
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For the past four years, Margaret Spellings has occupied one of the most coveted corner offices in the West Wing.

The 46-year-old from Houston whom President Bush has tapped to be the next secretary of education, has prime White House real estate just an office away from political mastermind Karl Rove and just upstairs from the Oval Office.

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But Ms. Spellings, who for more than a decade has been George W. Bush’s most trusted aide on education and has spent his first presidential term as his chief domestic-policy adviser, has deliberately kept her role behind the scenes.

“I imagine most of the people in Washington don’t know who she is,” said Will Davis, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who worked with Ms. Spellings on education reforms when he served as a Democratic member of the Texas Board of Education.

As of last week, they do. In naming Ms. Spellings as his choice to succeed Rod Paige as secretary of education, Mr. Bush described her as an “energetic reformer” and said she has a “special passion” for improving education.

“In Margaret Spellings, America’s children, teachers, and parents will have a principled, determined ally in my Cabinet,” Mr. Bush said in making the announcement Nov. 17. “She has my complete trust.”

‘Solid as a Rock’

That confidence developed over the years the two have worked together, first in Texas and then in Washington.

Ms. Spellings was the top lobbyist with the Texas Association of School Boards in 1994 when Mr. Bush lured her away to work on his first campaign for governor. She had previously held jobs as clerk for the Texas House education committee and as an adviser to then-Gov. William P. Clements Jr., a Republican.

Margaret Spellings and President Bush

“She was the first person that I know of that left lobbying and went to work for George W. Bush when no one really thought he had much of a chance against [then-Gov.] Ann Richards,” said Paul L. Sadler, a former Democratic chairman of the Texas House education committee. “I thought it was an extremely big risk, but I would say for her it has worked out remarkably well.”

Once he took office in 1995, Gov. Bush—with Ms. Spellings, then known as Margaret La Montagne, as his chief education adviser—championed changes to the Texas education system that foreshadowed the approach Mr. Bush has since taken on a national level.

The Texas changes included a rewrite of the state education code, in the works before Mr. Bush took office, an upgrade of the state’s curriculum standards, a reading program, and an initiative to eliminate social promotion. He also pushed through test-based accountability and initiatives to close the achievement gap affecting racial and economic minorities.

Through all of that, she served as Mr. Bush’s education alter ego, shadowing him to meetings and acting as his emissary.

“She’s a deep thinker and gets to the bottom of things and analyzes them quickly,” said Mr. Davis, the former state school board member.

Margaret Spellings

Age: 46

Hometown: Houston

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston

Career: White House chief domestic-policy advisor, 2001-present; adviser to then-Gov. Bush of Texas, 1995-2000; chief lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards, 1988-94.

Family: Married to Robert D. Spellings, an Austin, Texas, lawyer now based in Washington. Two daughters and two stepsons.

Those who have worked with her describe her as straightforward and direct, but someone who doesn’t personalize disagreements.

“She’s solid as a rock and tells you exactly what she thinks, but doesn’t do it in a negative or demeaning way,” said G. Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.

And she can be trusted, said Jeri Stone, the executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, an independent labor organization with about 50,000 members based in Austin. “We were not always on the same side of an issue … but she was always true to her word.”

Though she’s intense and driven, she’s also known for her humor. When she represented then-Gov. Bush, some dubbed her the “princess of darkness.” Ms. Spellings bought herself a black cape, said Dubravka H. Romano, an associate executive director at the Texas Association of School Boards and a close friend.

Such wrangling taught her valuable political lessons.

“She’s a pragmatist,” said Sandy Kress, a former White House education adviser to President Bush who also worked closely with Ms. Spellings in Texas. “She will win as big a victory as she can today and live to fight for more the next time around.”

Ruffled Some Conservatives

Born in Michigan, Ms. Spellings moved with her family to Houston when she was in the 3rd grade. Her mother, Peg Dudar, was a social worker; her father, John Dudar, was a geologist. Ms. Spellings was always a good student who could juggle many tasks, Mrs. Dudar said in a telephone interview last week.

In high school, Ms. Spellings worked at the now-defunct Handy Andy grocery store to earn money for a car, and she continued while in college, when she also got a real estate license, her mother said.

“She’s a multi-tasker,” Ms. Dudar said.

She is also known for doing her research and a willingness to listen to opposing views. Although Ms. Spellings, as the president’s chief domestic adviser, has worked on issues ranging from health care to immigration, she played a key behind-the-scenes role helping to craft the No Child Left Behind Act, the school accountability law that Mr. Bush signed in January 2002. The law in many ways mirrors changes instituted in Texas, by calling for increased school accountability and penalties for failure to meet achievement goals.

Ms. Spellings worked closely with both Republicans and Democrats, and the law passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. But President Bush did give up some ideas he had campaigned on in 2000, such as private school vouchers for students in low-performing schools, to win passage of the education bill.

Ms. Spellings’ sometimes moderate ways haven’t always pleased conservative Republicans, who question some of her views on social issues.

In a 2001 interview on CBS’ “The Early Show,” she declared herself to be pro-choice on abortion rights. A month later, conservatives took her to task for responding “so what?” to a question in another TV interview about the decline of traditional two-parent families. Ms. Spellings had been divorced, and she was a single parent herself at the time, as she noted.

In 2001, she married Robert D. Spellings, a politically connected Austin lawyer who is now based in Washington.

Following the “so what?” comment, the syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak wrote that her response showed how much Ms. Spellings “was out of touch with Republican cultural values.”

But Ms. Spellings has always been in sync with Mr. Bush and his education goals. She’s always had his ear, said Bill Ratliff, a Republican former chairman of the Texas Senate education committee. “She had the talent of being able to tell Governor Bush when he was wrong … and he would listen to her,” Mr. Ratliff said.

Her loyalty to him is well known. “She wanted absolutely no profile in Washington,” said Mrs. Dudar. “She feels she is working for the president and Washington is his show.”

Ms. Spellings is now at center stage of that show. As she spoke last week following the president’s announcement of her selection, she choked up when she spoke of her fervor to improve schools.

“I believe in America’s schools,” she said, “what they mean to each child, to each future president or future domestic-policy adviser, and to the strength of our great country.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Spellings Would Bring Acumen, Pragmatism to Secretary’s Position


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