Margaret Spellings, who served as chief domestic policy adviser to President Bush during his first term, promised yesterday to iron out problems with the No Child Left Behind education law if she is confirmed as education secretary.
Spellings, 47, appeared headed for swift and painless Senate confirmation as she answered questions from members of the education committee on the president's second-term education agenda. Democrats joined Republicans in praising the nominee's experience and competence while criticizing the shortage of federal funding for the landmark education legislation.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, joked that his endorsement of Spellings could represent the "kiss of death" for her with the right wing. And while he chided the Bush administration for what he called its "tin-cup education budget," he told Spellings with a smile, "You knew you were going to hear that."
Spellings has the reputation of being more flexible than the current education secretary, Roderick R. Paige, who oversaw the first phase of implementation of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which aims to bring all children up to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Teachers unions and some state legislatures have depicted the law as an underfunded federal mandate, overly cumbersome and bureaucratic.
In her testimony yesterday, Spellings made it clear that she is willing to implement the legislation pragmatically in order to avoid what she called "horror stories." In the first two years of the law's implementation, more than half the schools in some states failed to meet federal requirements, putting them on a path to eventual reorganization and closure. The standards they must meet are due to become more onerous this year, which could result in larger numbers of "failing" schools unless changes are made.
Spellings promised to work with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who complained that highly regarded schools in New York were becoming overcrowded because of a provision in the law that allows parents to transfer their children from unsuccessful schools to thriving ones. As a result, Clinton said, standards were also declining at the successful schools.
A former education lobbyist in Texas, Spellings helped draft the No Child Left Behind Act and worked behind the scenes at the White House on implementation issues. She noted yesterday that she is both an advocate and a consumer of education, with two school-age children. Her older daughter, Mary, 17, attends a Catholic high school, and her younger daughter, Grace, 12, goes to a public middle school in Virginia.
"We must stay true to the sound principles of leaving no child behind," Spellings told the senators. "But we in the administration must engage with those closest to children to embed these principles in a sensible and workable way."
Outlining Bush's second-term education agenda, Spellings said that the practice of regular standardized testing that underpins No Child Left Behind would be extended into high school from elementary and middle schools. She also promised to reshape college aid to help older and disadvantaged students and overhaul the Pell Grant program, whose payments to students have been lagging behind the ever-rising cost of higher education.
The committee, whose formal name is the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, voted unanimously to recommend Spellings for Senate confirmation, which is expected soon. If confirmed, Spellings will preside over an agency with 4,400 workers and a discretionary budget of $56.6 billion.