'Soccer Mom' Education Chief Plays Hardball
After reading this, you'll see that Spellings' enjoyment of being called the princess of darkness (whose religion is phonics) is evidenced in her relations with state heads of education.
Why did the New York Times put this article on page 1?
WASHINGTON - Margaret Spellings once described herself to a Texas reporter as "an earth-mother type of Republican." As the first woman with school-age children to serve as secretary of education, she was asked recently to explain herself.
"I would just say that I nursed my kids for a long time; I made my own baby food," Ms. Spellings told reporters at a press breakfast. "I mean I used cloth diapers, not Pampers."
That was long ago, when she was an education lobbyist in Austin. But since taking office in January, the onetime Austin earth mother, who greets visitors to her office with a "Come on in, y'all" and often displays wit and charm, has also shown her willingness to engage in bare-knuckle politics, fighting to tamp down a growing rebellion against President Bush's No Child Left Behind law.
Facing a challenge to the law from Connecticut, she accused educators there of being "un-American." Seeking to beat back a Utah bill that protests the federal law, Ms. Spellings cold-shouldered the Utah superintendent of schools for months and threatened to slash federal money for Utah.
"Margaret Spellings terrifies me," said a Washington lobbyist who has known Ms. Spellings since she joined the Bush White House in 2001.
The secretary said in a recent interview that she was mystified by that comment, but assumed that it had come from an employee at her department. "I don't think I'm terrifying," Ms. Spellings said. "I'm a 47-year-old soccer mom."
Since taking office, she has made clear that she sees the federal law as the nation's best bet for closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and that her mission is to help states that are raising student scores and following the law's principles, which include an expansion of standardized testing, to carry it out. Those states "will be gratified," she said recently.
"Others looking for loopholes," she said, "who ignore the intent of the law and have minimal results to show for their millions of dollars in federal funds will think otherwise and be disappointed."
Some experts said that she faces a tough road. Most ambitious legislation requires revision, and many educators have concluded that this law needs a tuneup, too. But the White House is determined to avoid any legislative reconsideration until the scheduled reauthorization of the law in 2007. That position is requiring states to live with what many view as unrealistic provisions, like one requiring that newly arrived immigrant students take annual tests in English, and it has fallen to Ms. Spellings to keep the lid on.
She has cultivated her reputation for playing hardball.
Reminiscing about her early lobbying career and her longtime friendship with Karl Rove, the presidential adviser, before she joined George W. Bush's campaign for governor in 1994, she described how Texas teachers' groups had nicknamed her the "princess of darkness." Playing with that renown, she acquired a black cape with "princess of darkness" monogrammed on the back, she said.
"I still have my princess of darkness cape," Ms. Spellings said in the interview, in February.
At the press breakfast in April, she swept in guzzling a large Starbucks coffee and fielded questions in a refreshingly unassuming manner. She was asked how she would help her 17-year-old daughter select a college.
"It's a confusing process," she answered. "I'm the doggone secretary of education, and I'm fumbling around at Barnes & Noble trying to find the book to figure it out."
She was a stream of Texas truisms, punching home a point about how America needed to modernize its schools to meet world competition by blurting, "If all you ever do is all you've ever done, then all you'll ever get is all you've ever got!"
"She's fun and strategic and very savvy," said Sandy Kress, an Austin lawyer who worked with her to draft No Child Left Behind in 2000. "And just loaded with common sense."
Terry Bergeson, the Washington state superintendent, said she admired Ms. Spellings's businesslike attitude in recent meetings at the department. "She's blunt," Dr. Bergeson said. "She doesn't want wandering conversations. She wants to get down to work."
Ms. Spellings grew up in and attended college in Houston. Her work as a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards impressed Mr. Rove, who arranged for her to brief Mr. Bush on education issues. After his 1994 election as governor, Mr. Bush brought her on to coordinate his education initiatives.
In 1997, she and her first husband divorced. She remarried in 2001 to Robert Spellings, a lawyer, and lives in Virginia, where one daughter, Mary, 17, attends a parochial high school and another, Grace, 12, is in a public school.
Her experience as a single mother sets her apart from other secretaries of education. Another characteristic that stands out is her irreverent wit. After President Bush chose her as his domestic policy adviser in 2001, a reporter asked her religion.
"Phonics," she replied. (She is an Episcopalian, she said last week.)
After Mr. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in January 2002, Ms. Spellings wielded considerable power in putting it into effect, and after his re-election, Mr. Bush announced that Ms. Spellings would replace Secretary Rod Paige.
At the breakfast, Ms. Spellings called the Bush White House a "close-knit family" and likened her move to the Department of Education to a young adult's departure from home. "I moved away from my parents and now I've got my own house," Ms. Spellings said.
She took over a department mired in conflicts with many states. Connecticut was disputing the law's testing requirements, Texas the rules on disabled students, North Dakota its teacher certification procedures, Utah what the authorities there consider its usurpation of local educational control, and California its system for labeling failing schools.
In a speech to educators on April 7, Ms. Spellings outlined a formula for resolving the federal-state conflict. States that have sound educational policies, demonstrate that achievement is rising, and follow the "basic principles of the law," she said, would be permitted flexibility to adapt the law to local conditions.
The speech drew warm applause, but some educators have since raised questions about how Ms. Spellings intends to identify the worthy states.
Chester Finn, a conservative scholar at the Hoover Institution, the research organization, wrote that Ms. Spellings's state-by-state approach "invites politics."
In her first weeks, her treatment of states was already "strikingly uneven," Dr. Finn wrote. "The department has been tough with Connecticut and, of all places, Texas. But it's been lax with North Dakota, alternated between stern and accommodating with Utah, and compromised with California," he said.
Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia's education commissioner, said she had been eager to hear Ms. Spellings because "We've got a backlash, almost a tsunami, on N.C.L.B."
But after the speech, she said, "I still don't understand what states need to do to get flexibility - and I'm not alone."
Still, Dr. DeMary said she was charmed when Ms. Spellings sent her a note of thanks after a recent visit to a high school in Richmond.
Ms. Spellings was less cordial with Connecticut's education commissioner, Betty Sternberg. The secretary long ignored requests for a meeting to discuss the law's annual testing requirements, Dr. Sternberg said. Then an article by Ms. Spellings in The Hartford Courant compared Connecticut educators to little children who did not like to be tested. She followed up in a television interview by lashing her adversaries there as "un-American."
"Corporate litigation can get nasty, but I'm not usually defending myself against a personal attack as in this case," said Allan Taylor, a lawyer who is the chairman of the Connecticut Board of Education.
Patti Harrington, the Utah superintendent, also said she got no response to requests to meet with Ms. Spellings to discuss Utah's criticisms of the law. Instead, Ms. Spellings sought an accommodation with Utah's governor, a Republican. The day before the Utah Legislature passed a bill last week protesting the federal law, Ms. Spellings sent a letter warning that the measure could cause the state to forfeit $76 million in federal money.
"Its message was, 'You dare move and we'll clobber you,' " Dr. Harrington said.
New York Times
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