WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has put a passport stamp on her job, taking more overseas trips since 2005 than her predecessor did in four years.
In less than a year and a half, Spellings has taken seven overseas trips, traveling to Afghanistan, England, Egypt, France, India, Italy, Japan, Jordan and Russia. She plans to visit Greece and Spain later this month.
Transportation, food and lodging for her overseas travel cost $36,981, according to Education Department records. The total cost of her travel was thousands of dollars higher because other agencies picked up the tab for a few trips.
It's not a matter of wanderlust, Spellings says. In her view, the top school official ought to see the nations that the United States is helping and competing against.
"We believe that education is a universally shared value," Spellings said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday. "We are looked to and admired around the world as people who know how to do education for the masses."
Spellings has served as a natural spokeswoman for the White House campaign for greater U.S. competitiveness. Better education is at the heart of that effort. She is also close to Bush, as his former top domestic policy adviser and as a longtime friend from Texas.
Spellings took office in January 2005. Rod Paige, Bush's first education secretary, took six overseas trip during his four years in the Cabinet. Three of Spellings' trips came at the request of the White House.
She accompanied first lady Laura Bush to launch a training institute for women teachers in Kabul, Afghanistan. She also led U.S. delegations to the 2005 World Expo in Nagoya, Japan, and to the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy.
Her other trips focused mainly on meetings with international peers. Some examples:
• Spellings traveled with congressional members in April 2006 to Bangalore, New Delhi, and Agra in India. The purpose of the trip was to help the U.S. learn how to compete better.
• Spellings attended two meetings of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, an effort launched in 2004 by Bush and leaders of other major nations. Her travel took her along the Dead Sea in Jordan in May 2005 and to Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in May 2006.
• Spellings went to Moscow in May 2006 for a meeting of education ministers from G8 nations. She also met with Russian teachers and students about math, science and foreign language study and signed a deal with Russian leaders about student and scholar exchanges.
The trips have had different purposes, she said. But all reflect a greater international focus for the Education Department since Bush's first term.
"The landscape has changed, and is changing, since the earliest days of the administration," Spellings said. "The things that we're doing in the Middle East have evolved over these several years. ... It's a smaller world, and we are invested in key parts of the world."
Keith Ashdown, spokesman for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, questioned how much benefit taxpayers would get out of the trips. The Education Department would be better served, he said, to send midlevel employees who handle day-to-day activities.
"These trips by executives at agencies, there's not a lot of bang for the buck," Ashdown said. "They're mainly expensive public relations events to make the agencies look good."
In speeches, Spellings loves to reference "The World is Flat." The Thomas Friedman best-seller explores how technology is exploding the global economy and forcing the U.S. to adapt.
"It's very significant that she's traveling abroad as much as she can, and more so than her predecessor did," said Victor Johnson, associate executive director of NAFSA, a prominent association of international educators.
"It's certainly important that she gets out there and understands what some of our key competitors in the international education market are doing," Johnson said. "We need to compete for the students and the scholars and the talent of the world."
Paige had a more domestically focused mission: starting No Child Left Behind. The sweeping education law was Bush's first priority in office. Bush signed it in January 2002.
"Secretary Paige traveled a lot domestically — that's just where the need was," said William Hansen, who was Paige's deputy secretary.
The Sept. 11 attacks, the ensuing wars and the fresh attention on economic competitiveness have all put more focus on international travel for Spellings.