WASHINGTON – Margaret Spellings (search), who helped shape the nation's sweeping education act, pledged Thursday to listen to those demanding changes in the law if she becomes the nation's education secretary.
"We must stay true to the sound principles of leaving no child behind, but we in the administration must engage with those closest to children" on sensible enforcement, Spellings said at her confirmation hearing.
Nominated by President Bush to be the country's eighth education secretary, Spellings went before the Senate education committee Thursday to take questions about her views and priorities.
She entered her confirmation hearing on strong footing, having won praise from both parties as a respected policy-maker and fair negotiator on behalf of the White House. She is expected to win easy confirmation from the Senate as the top education official in the country.
"I don't think anyone has a better understanding of the president's position (on education)," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (search), as the hearing began. "You will now be in a perfect position to promote his agenda."
With little public attention, Spellings became one of Bush's most trusted advisers over the last decade and had a big hand in federal school policy during his first term as president.
If departing Secretary Rod Paige (search), who came to Washington as a superintendent from Houston, was the reform-minded outsider, then Spellings is the loyal insider. She was Bush's chief education adviser in Texas and his domestic policy adviser inside the White House.
Spellings, 47, would be the first female education secretary in more than 20 years and the first schools chief in recent history to have children in school. Her daughter Mary, 17, attends a Catholic high school and her daughter Grace, 12, goes to a public middle school.
Spellings is known for championing early reading and regular testing of students so they are not moved through school until they prove their skills -- the fundamentals Bush wants.
She would inherit a host of challenges in running an agency with 4,400 workers, a discretionary budget of $56.6 billion and oversight of the spectrum of education.
A broad range of educators want the No Child Left Behind (search) law she helped craft to be adjusted and supported with much more money. Advocates of private-school vouchers want Spellings to take up the cause of school choice, as Paige was known for doing.
The National Education Association (search) is looking for Spellings to repair damage after Paige called the union a "terrorist organization" for the way it opposed the new federal law.
Spellings was involved in every major decision about No Child Left Behind, which demands progress from students regardless of background and penalizes many schools that fall short. The law has been praised for giving attention to the plight of poor and minority children.
Bush, in perhaps his most ambitious second-term plan for education, wants to extend the law by requiring two more years of state math and reading tests in high school. The law now requires those tests in grades three through eight and at least once during grades 10 to 12.
Spellings would be asked to help persuade Congress to accept the idea, but the proposal already faces a fight from lawmakers who say the federal government is overstepping its bounds.
The tight relationship between Bush and Spellings could give the education secretary more power.
"Influence often depends on how close you are to the president," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former education secretary. "That means Margaret will give the Department of Education unprecedented influence."