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Spellings pledges vigorous pursuit of education agenda

Secretary lays out vision for change

WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said she will aggressively oversee the ways her department promotes its agenda, after controversies over a gay-themed children's show and a hired media pundit dominated her first days on the job.

''We need to know what we're getting," Spellings said yesterday in her first interview as secretary. ''We need to have a clearer, brighter line, so that we don't discover late in the process that this is what is coming down the pike."

She said she might consider changing enforcement rules of the No Child Left Behind law -- the Bush adminstration's major eduction initiative -- if legitimate concerns emerge. She named such possible areas as the testing of disabled children or teacher-quality struggles in rural regions. But she said some topics are off the table, including regular testing, which she called ''the linchpin of the whole doggone thing."

At 47, Spellings is the new public face of education for the administration, but she has spent a decade as a senior adviser to George W. Bush in Texas and as his domestic policy chief in the White House.

She is the first woman with school-age children to be education secretary. One of her daughters attends a Catholic high school, the other a public middle school, both in Alexandria, Va.

Less than two weeks after replacing Rod Paige, Spellings is promising change.

The Education Department has ended its contract with Ketchum, the public relations firm hired primarily to promote Bush's education law. Of the $1.3 million contract, about $240,000 went to commentator Armstrong Williams. The money went toward the production of ads, the department said, although Williams was also hired to promote the law in other ways.

''There's nobody who's more concerned about the credibility of this department and the credibility of No Child Left Behind -- and how those two go together -- than I am," Spellings said. ''And I have a high interest in making sure that we address this and move on."

Spellings said she and her chief of staff, David Dunn, who spent time at the department last year, did not know the agency had hired Williams until after the contract was signed. The department's inspector general is investigating the Williams deal.

''Is it right and appropriate to educate communities about this law? Yes," she said. ''Is it right to pay columnists who represent themselves as legitimate news people? No."

Spellings defended her criticism of PBS for funding an episode of ''Postcards From Buster" that included two lesbian couples. The department provides money for the children's show through a federal program designed to help children learn through television.

PBS has decided not to distribute the show, but some stations are running it anyway. Among them is WGBH in Boston, which produces the program and is scheduled to air it today.

''On lifestyle issues, I think it's appropriate for parents to deal with those and address those as they see fit, in their own way and in their own time," Spellings said. ''I believe that as a mother, and I believe that as a policy maker. For the Department of Education or public broadcasting to get into things that are, you know, in a grayer area, is just not something we need to do."

Asked if her move signals a more conservative approach from the department, Spellings said the agency would not get into such local matters as whether a gay teacher leads a classroom. It will get involved, she said, when federal tax dollars are being used.

The heart of the Spellings agenda is getting all children at least to grade level in reading and math, the central goal of No Child Left Behind.

That remains a huge undertaking, as many students, particularly poor and minority children, remain below federal standards in the basics.

Spellings said that ''horror stories" about the law have more to do with misunderstandings than the law itself.

It's the department's job, she said, to help end the ''misinformation and anxiety" among people who think the law is forcing them to cut arts classes, gym, or even their spelling bee.

Schools officials have welcomed her early pledge to listen to complaints about the law, which demands higher student performance and penalizes many schools that fall short.

But Spellings said yesterday: ''I don't want people to misperceive that we're open for business, and that No Child Left Behind is up -- it's not."

In fact, Spellings will lead Bush's campaign to expand the law by requiring two more years of state testing in high schools.

Some members of Congress are balking, but Spellings said support from governors and federal promises of more aid will help build support.

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