U.S. Secretary of Education
Born in 1957 in Michigan; married (divorced, 1997); married Robert Spellings, 2001; children: Mary, Grace. Education: University of Houston, B.A., 1979.
Addresses: Office —U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20202.
Aide to the Texas legislature; director of select committee on education for Texas Gov. William P. Clements Jr.; associate executive director, Texas Association of School Boards; political director, George W. Bush's campaign for governor, 1994; senior advisor to Texas Governor George W. Bush, 1995-2000; assistant to the president for domestic policy, 2001-04, U.S. Secretary of Education, 2005—.
After years as a behind-the-scenes aide to President George W. Bush, Margaret Spellings became secretary of education in January of 2005. She immediately threw herself into the country's culture wars by pressuring public television not to broadcast an episode of a children's show that included lesbian mothers. But she is usually considered a pragmatist, not a conservative ideologue. Her main goal is to fully implement the controversial standards of Bush's signature education reform, the No Child Left Behind Act, allowing more flexibility in how the act is enforced without bargaining away its essential parts.
Spellings was born in Michigan in 1957, but her family moved to Houston, Texas, when she was in third grade. Spellings is the oldest of four daughters. She graduated from the University of Houston, helping to pay for her education by working at a grocery store.
In the 1980s, Spellings worked as an aide in the Texas legislature and was a lobbyist for the state school boards association. Karl Rove, a political adviser to George W. Bush, introduced Bush to Spellings, figuring Bush, who was thinking of running for governor, needed advice on education issues. Bush was impressed with her, and made her political director of his successful 1994 campaign for governor.
Once Bush took office, he made Spellings his chief education adviser. She became known for working toward ending "social promotion," the practice of automatically passing students to the next grade to keep them in class with students their age. For instance, she ordered schools to keep third-graders in third grade for another year if they failed a state reading test.
When Bush became president in 2001, he brought Spellings to Washington with him, naming her assistant to the president for domestic policy. She worked on health care, immigration, and job training issues as well as education. Her biggest accomplishment was helping to draft the No Child Left Behind Act, which passed in January of 2002. It requires states to develop strong reading, math and science standards and tests in order to create more accountability for schools. The law has been controversial: some critics claimed it was too ambitious or too bureaucratic, while other critics have claimed it is under-funded.
Bush nominated Spellings to become the new secretary of education in November of 2004, after his reelection. She was considered a moderate choice who would be easily confirmed by the Senate. At her confirmation hearings in January of 2005, as Democrats such as Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts praised her, she promised to be pragmatic in the way the administration applied the No Child Left Behind Act. Critics of the law had been afraid it would be applied inflexibly, even though half the schools in some states failed their first round of federally required testing, which could have eventually required them to close.
The nomination of Spellings was also expected to improve the Bush Administration's relations with teachers. Spellings' predecessor as secretary of education, Roderick Paige, had called the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, a "terrorist organization" for opposing the No Child Left Behind law. When Spellings' appointment was announced, the NEA called it "a great opportunity" for the Bush Administration to "change the tone" of its conversation with educators, according to CNN.com. Conservative groups that support sweeping education reforms such as school choice and school vouchers were disappointed. "The emphasis will be on standards and accountability rather than choice-based reform," Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute complained to the Washington Post 's Michael Dobbs.
However, as soon as Spellings became education secretary, she stepped into the sort of cultural clash more often associated with conservatives than moderates. On her second day on the job, she sent a letter to Pat Mitchell, chief executive officer of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), warning the network not to air an episode of the children's program Postcards From Buster that showed two pairs of lesbian mothers. PBS had just decided not to air the episode a few hours before it received Spellings' letter, a network spokesperson said.
Postcards From Buster, a mix of animation and live action, features an animated young rabbit who crosses the country with a video camera and talks to real people of different cultural backgrounds about local attractions. An episode called "Sugar-time!" had Buster learning how maple syrup and cheese are made in Vermont, and along the way, he meets a pair of families that are each headed by two women. One child introduces one of the couples to Buster as her mother and stepmother. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode," Spellings wrote to PBS, according to the Washington Post. Spellings added that Congress's intent in funding children's programming "certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children."
The warning proved controversial. When Mitchell announced her resignation from PBS a few weeks later, she had to stress that she had previously planned to step down and that Spellings' Buster letter played no part in her decision. Public television station WGBH in Boston decided to broadcast "Sugartime!" and make it available to any other PBS station that wanted to air it; at least 40 announced they would. Conservative groups applauded Spellings' stance. "At its heart, the issue before us is the 'sexual reorientation' and brainwashing of children by homosexual advocacy groups," James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, wrote on his website, while Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association wrote that "the homosexual community has long used PBS to promote their agenda," according to an article by Frazier Moore on CNN.com.
However, Moore, in his commentary, wrote sarcastically that the episode was truly dangerous because the two lesbian couples in the show "come across as perilously likable people and loving parents," making it hard for them to "be demonized for being who they are." Spellings' decision also attracted an angry letter from openly gay Congressman Barney Frank. "You have said that families should not have to deal with the reality of the existence of same-sex couples, and the strong implication is that this is something from which young children should be shielded," Frank wrote, as quoted by Lisa de Moraes in the Washington Post. Frank added that he has not usually had to explain to his younger relatives why he lives with a man, "because young people, not exposed to the kind of distaste for us that you embody, did not demand explanations."
That Spellings sparked the controversy was surprising for two reasons. She had a reputation for avoiding attention, not seeking it. "I don't like to be in the limelight," Dobbs of the Washington Post quoted her as saying. "I like to be under the radar." The other reason was that the divorced Spellings has not always followed a conservative line on social issues. Early in Bush's first term, she appeared on C-SPAN, where she was asked for her reaction to census figures that showed traditional families were in decline. She declined to express concern, noting that she was a single mom and that there were "lots of different types of family," Dobbs noted in 2004. (Spellings married her second husband, Robert Spellings, an Austin lawyer and lobbyist who favored school vouchers, in 2001.)
As commentators batted the Buster controversy around, Spellings focused most of her energy on defending and improving No Child Left Behind. Both Bush and Spellings mentioned the law at her formal swearing-in at the end of January of 2005. "When you signed No Child Left Behind into law three years ago," Spellings told Bush, as quoted by Washington Post reporter Peter Baker, "it was more than an act, it was an attitude—an attitude that says it's right to measure our children's progress from year to year so we can help them before it's too late, an attitude that says expecting students to read and do math at grade level or better is not too much to ask." Bush and Spellings indicated they would expand the law to include high school and also work to increase access to college by improving loan programs. Spellings noted she is the first education secretary who is the mother of school-age children. "In carrying out my duties to the American people, I will be carrying out my duties as a mom," the Washington Post quoted her as saying.
Quickly, though, Spellings demonstrated flexibility on the No Child Left Behind law. In February of 2005, she declared that school districts did not have to accept students from schools that had scored badly on tests if it would cause overcrowding, a decision that saved schools in New York from upheaval. She also settled a dispute about teacher certifications in North Dakota, signaling an end to the rigid interpretations of her predecessor, Paige, that had left 31 state legislatures challenging parts of the law. In April, she followed up by declaring that states that already have strong systems for accountability could opt out of certain provisions of No Child Left Behind. However, she also said she would not be flexible about the law's requirement that students be tested every year between grades 3 and 8 and also once in high school.
"In her four months as education secretary, Margaret Spellings has made it clear that her top priority is to fix problems with the No Child Left Behind Act," Dobbs of the Washington Post summarized in May of 2005. By then, Spellings was facing tougher challenges from states such as Utah and Connecticut that wanted to disregard core parts of the law.
New York Times, February 14, 2005, p. A18.
Washington Post, November 18, 2004, p. A37; January 7, 2005, p. A5; January 27, 2005, p. C1; February 1, 2005, p. A15; February 17, 2005, p. C1; February 18, 2005, p. C7; April 24, 2005, p. B6; May 18, 2005, p. A15.
"Bush has chosen education nominee, official says," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/11/16/education.secretary (May 21, 2005).
"Commentary: Buster and the lesbians," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/02/15/apontv.buster.busted.ap/index.html (February 15, 2005).
"Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education—Biography," ED.gov, http://www.ed.gov/print/news/staff/bios/spellings.html (May 21, 2005).
"President Bush Nominates Margaret Spellings as Secretary of Education," The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/11/print/20041117-4.html (May 21, 2005).
"Profile: Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings," ABCNews.com, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/print?id=263257 (May 21, 2005).