Margaret Spellings got high grades as the architect of President George W. Bush's 2001 No Child Left Behind school reform. Her saucy Texas witticisms and steel-trap mind have earned friends for the former White House domestic policy chief as diverse as Bush political guru Karl C. Rove and liberal lion Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- as well as the moniker "La Margarita" from the President. Kennedy, usually stingy with praise for Republicans, describes the 47-year-old policy wonk as "a consistent champion for improving and strengthening public education." But now that Spellings is settling into her new job as Education Secretary, she's learning that even a straight-A student may not easily ace her next exam.
As the longtime Bush aide tries to take education reform to the next level -- by extending No Child's testing requirements into high school -- she faces resistance that crosses the political spectrum and stretches from Washington to dozens of state capitals. To succeed, Spellings also will have to overcome a backlash from the divisive tenure of predecessor Rod Paige, who riled state legislatures over what they considered inflexible implementation of new national standards and personal disputes with political foes. "She's going to have her hands full," says John F. Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, which keeps tabs on education reform.
Indeed, tough challenges lie ahead for an education expert who has earned a reputation for bipartisanship as she worked for Democrats, Republicans, and school boards over the past 20 years. Prominent pro-reform Democrats, including Kennedy and Representative George Miller of California, are unwilling to team up with Bush again, burned by what they view as a gaping $39 billion shortfall in funding for No Child Left Behind. What's more, about 50 conservative House Republicans, many of whom reluctantly backed Bush's K-8 reforms out of first-term loyalty, say they are unwilling to extend the federal reach in education. "However well-intentioned, one more unfunded mandate from Washington will not cure what ails our local schools," says Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chair of the conservative House Republican Study Committee.
Adding to the Education Secretary's woes, the Administration's new No Child proposals -- which include three years of high school testing and additional aid to assist students who are struggling to master reading, math, and science skills -- will cost a bundle. And the main source of funding, a $1.2 billion cut in vocational education programs, is seen by some on Capitol Hill as robbing Peter to pay Paul. "You have both a political problem and a funding issue," says Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the House subcommittee on education reform. "There is insufficient support in the House of Representatives now to pass it."
That's not the kind of pessimism the business community wants to hear right now. Prominent executives have been peppering state and federal lawmakers in recent months with a blunt message: High school students must improve their math, science, and writing skills for the U.S. to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) founder William H. Gates III, speaking on Feb. 26 at a national education summit in Washington, D.C., damned U.S. high schools as "obsolete," saying its education model is so outdated that it's "like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe."
Execs recite a long list of high school failings: Its graduation rates leave the U.S. ranked 16th among 20 industrial countries, and rivals such as India and China produce more engineers. "We have plenty of statistics. Now we need some solutions," says Prudential Financial Inc. (PRU) CEO Arthur F. "Art" Ryan, co-chairman of Achieve Inc., a bipartisan education reform partnership between business and governors.
While some 30 governors are working on state-based solutions, Spellings wants Congress to act, starting by requiring all pupils to undergo skills tests each year from 3rd through 11th grades. The Bush budget includes a 4.7% increase in Title I aid to help poorer school districts and expanded incentives to attract teachers to poor schools. Says Spellings: "The recipe is right. We need to extend it into high school."
It certainly won't hurt Spellings' sales pitch that she's a product of suburban Houston public schools. The University of Houston political science and journalism major is also the first Education Secretary to have school-age children -- daughters Mary and Grace. "She knows the imperative of standards-based reforms and that education is fundamentally a state responsibility," says Governor Bob Taft (R-Ohio).
Despite Spellings' credentials and warm relationship with many state officials, she faces skepticism from the first contentious round of No Child Left Behind. State lawmakers around the country are demanding more flexibility in meeting the tough standards set by the feds -- something Spellings says she understands because "I've...been in the other guy's shoes."
The education boss will have to use all of her schmoozing skills to reassure the doubters. "Obviously, change is hard," she acknowledges. "[But] we're here for the long haul with this law." That mixture of firmness and flexibility is something educators, CEOs, and lawmakers alike see as a welcome change in a polarized capital.
By Richard S. Dunham in Washington, with William C. Symonds in Boston