It can’t be easy for U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She’s passionate about all things to do with school. “This is my life’s work, my calling,” she says. Yet, here she is, in the final year of the Bush administration, and instead of continuing the grand work of remaking America’s schools, she’s stamping out brush fires in college-lending caused by the credit crunch and rattling the cages of fat cats in higher education. She doesn’t like to say it out loud, but despite her very best efforts, things haven’t worked out like she (or her boss) had planned.
At lunch this week with NEWSWEEK, she was determined to look forward, not back. She’s had a great ride. She came to Washington, first as senior domestic policy adviser in 2001, with a popular Republican president who promptly wrested education away from the Democrats, the ones who had traditionally dominated the issue. Back then, President Bush spoke loud and often about the raw deal poor and minority kids were getting in public school. Instead of a bleeding heart, he showed a kind of flinty compassion for the poor by condemning what he famously called the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that plagued our inner cities. He coupled that with an inspired can-do attitude about making real, lasting change that disarmed even his fiercest opponents.