Margaret Spellings, former President George W. Bush's second Secretary of Education, will take over his foundation and policy institute in September, Spellings told The Huffington Post Thursday.
Spellings already chairs the George W. Bush Institute's education advisory committee, and has been increasing her work there over the last few years. "As the building was being completed and we turned our attention to the programming, it seemed like an interesting opportunity," she said, speaking from the foundation in Dallas shortly before a staff meeting to break the news.
When Spellings was in third grade, her family moved from from Michigan to Texas, but she has spent the last several years in Washington, D.C. While Spellings says all Texans know they eventually wind up back in the Lone Star State, she had some concerns about a big move at this point in her life.
Bush didn't think that was a valid excuse. "'If you think it's hard to move at 55, wait till you're 65!'" she remembers Bush telling her in an early conversation.
“Laura and I are thrilled that Margaret Spellings is coming home to Texas to join us at the Bush Center,” Bush said in a statement Thursday. “Margaret is a smart, capable, effective leader who gets results. Her policy and management experience will inform and enhance our work at the Bush Institute.”
From 2005 to 2009, Spellings served as Education Secretary after working as a domestic policy counselor for Bush. During her term, she was an architect and protector of the No Child Left Behind Act, a bipartisan reauthorization of the half-century-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act law that dramatically extended the federal government's reach into America's schools. Since the end of the Bush administration, she has worked at her own consulting firm to advise philanthropic organizations, and, more visibly, served as the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation -- a perch from which she has sought to defend NCLB's principles.
Spellings takes the reins at the George W. Bush Foundation as those principles are under attack. NCLB, which calls for annual student testing and school penalties based on those results, has been criticized for causing teachers to "teach to the test" and being overly punitive. The law expired in 2007. Spellings thinks "policy should grow organically," she says, but its core of a muscular federal government that ensures states are looking out for poor and minority students is nonnegotiable.
While Spellings will oversee all policy areas at the Institute and Foundation, she hopes to use the platform to keep holding the line on NCLB -- especially as it seems to be dissolving. Congress has failed to reauthorize the law, so the Obama administration has enabled states to apply for waivers from the law's most stringent components in exchange for agreeing to implement parts of the administration's education agenda. So far, 37 states have received waivers, but Spellings thinks they are too weak on accountability, something the Institute has examined.
Also, the bipartisanship that was once seen around education policy at the federal level is falling apart, something Spellings wants to restore from her new post. "I had a brief conversation with [House Speaker Rep. John] Boehner this morning to tell him my news and it's surprising to me that we go from [Democratic Rep.] George Miller and [Democratic Sen.] Ted Kennedy and Boehner and [Republican Sen.] Judd Gregg and Bush," she said, referring to the law's cosponsors, "working in a huge bipartisan margin to a place where there's just a lot of fracturing in the debate. I hope we can get better at reframing what those first principles are."
Spellings spent a brief stint on former Mass Gov. Mitt Romney's educational advisory committee during his 2012 presidential run, but ultimately left because she thought his positions on the federal government's role in schools weren't "muscular" enough.
As head of the George W. Bush Institute, she hopes to convene policy meetings on education, and "that we can be instructive for the way forward for the [Republican Rep. and House education committee chair] John Klines and the John Boehners of the world."
At the Foundation, she expects Bush and his wife, Laura, a librarian, to continue playing the role they've held up until now. "They've been quite active in describing the agenda and the goals, these ideas around freedom -- freedom from illiteracy, freedom from disease, freedom for economic prosperity," she said. As board members, she said, they are "party to all these discussions." The Bush family recently unveiled the building that would house their archives and foundation.