Margaret Spellings, a White House adviser and longtime confidante of President George W. Bush, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Jan. 20 as the new Secretary of Education. She succeeds Roderick Paige, the controversial former Houston superintendent who served in that post throughout the first four years of the Bush administration.

Spellings assumed the cabinet-level post after Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., agreed to waive his objections, which had been holding up her final confirmation. Lautenberg’s move came after Spellings agreed to review the promotional tactics–such as paying a conservative pundit $241,000 to praise the No Child Left Behind Act–that stirred up trouble at the Department of Education (ED) in early January.

“I made clear to Ms. Spellings that these propaganda efforts at the Department of Education must stop,” Lautenberg told the Associated Press.

“Too often the administration has misspent taxpayer funds to further President Bush’s political agenda … Ms. Spellings assured me that she takes the propaganda problem very seriously and will meet with me” when Congress’ investigative arm finishes a report, Lautenberg said.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is trying to determine whether ED violated a federal ban on propaganda.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy confirmed that Spellings had committed to “reviewing the recommendations of the GAO report.” He also reiterated the administration’s view that the department’s deal with commentator Armstrong Williams “should be looked into.”

The maneuver that Lautenberg used allows senators to prevent a confirmation vote until they resolve an outstanding issue. Lautenberg agreed to lift his hold on the nomination after speaking with Spellings on Jan. 19, according to two of the senator’s aides.

In a statement in support of Spellings’ confirmation, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., had this to say about the role of ED Secretary: “There is no more important position in a president’s Cabinet. Education is key to opportunity and a strong economy.”

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  • Previously, Kennedy had called her “a capable, principled leader who has the ear of the president and has earned strong, bipartisan respect in Congress.”

    Spellings, 46, has a long association with President Bush, having served as his senior adviser while he was governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000. During the president’s first term, Spellings served in the White House as assistant to the president for domestic policy. As a member of Bush’s staff when he was governor of Texas, she helped him formulate a state education policy that later became the backbone of the national No Child Left Behind Act.

    Considered by some Washington insiders as a policy maven, Spellings also is said to possess keen political acumen. When Bush ran for governor in 1994, she was his political director. Shortly after Bush won, Spellings–then known as Margaret LaMontagne–became his education adviser and helped him pass legislation that emphasized accountability and achievement, local control, and early-childhood reading skills.

    A 1979 graduate of the University of Houston, Spellings was associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards before joining Bush’s gubernatorial campaign.

    Spellings is the second woman to become Secretary of Education since the department was created in 1979. The first woman to hold the office, Shirley M. Hufstedler, was appointed by President Carter on May 7, 1980.

    Margaret Spellings, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, has been part of President Bush’s political team for more than a decade, dating back to Bush’s early years as Texas governor. (Associated Press photo)

    In Spellings’ home state of Texas, she oversaw the Texas Reading Initiative and the Student Success Initiative to eliminate social promotion. She also played a key role in developing a rigorous assessment system–and is a strong advocate for school accountability.

    Since coming to Washington, Spellings reportedly has influenced Bush’s domestic agenda on everything from justice to housing. Many policies she advocated were endorsed by the president during his 2004 re-election campaign. These include a revision of Social Security, limiting medical malpractice litigation, and making more taxpayer funds available to faith-based organizations that do charitable work.

    “You bet she was an education person in Texas, but I realized how brilliant a woman she is,” Bush told the Dallas Morning News in 2001. “She can handle just about every task we give her.”

    The National Education Association (NEA), which former Secretary Paige alienated in 2004 when he called it a “terrorist organization,” reacted positively to the Spellings when her nomination first was announced in November.

    “This is a great opportunity for the administration to change the tone of its discourse with the education community, particularly the 2.7 million members of the National Education Association who are in schools all over this nation,” NEA President Reg Weaver said in a published statement. “We look forward to finding common ground with Ms. Spellings in her new role.”

    ED accounts for approximately 6 percent of the $852 billion spent on public education each year, with the rest coming mainly from state and local governments and private sources, according to government figures.

    During her tenure at the White House, Spellings traveled the country visiting schools that had improved test scores. She also briefed reporters on behalf of the White House on Bush’s education policies.

    “She has my complete trust,” Bush said when he nominated Spellings to the education post.

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    Spellings’ White House bio

    U.S. Dept. of Education