The Exceptionalism of Margaret Spellings?

Ed Week’s Robelen turns in the requisite story about whether it matters that incoming Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings doesn’t have K-12 teaching or administration experience. It’s replete with lots of quotes expressing wonderment at this extraordinary state of affairs.

Hard to believe that just four years ago the buzz was running solidly in the opposite direction with hearty enthusiasm about how terrific and noteworthy it was that Bush had appointed a practicing school superintendent, one who was named Superintendent of the Year shortly thereafter.

In fact, of the eight secretaries (including Spellings) Paige’s background is anomalous. More common are lawyers (Hufstedler, Cavazos, Alexander, and Riley)*, and academic types (Bennett and Bell) or former governors (Alexander and Riley), and probably even gamblers (Bennett, and odds are there’s probably another in a group of eight) are as common. Though Bell brought an education background to the table, Paige is the real exception on that score. A better headline might be: Back to business as usual at Dept. of Ed.

Besides, it really doesn’t matter much. Background is not deterministic in jobs like this, experience, intellect, and commitment to the issue, education in this case, are. Teaching no more qualifies you to run a large federal agency than running a large federal agency qualifies you to teach. If Margaret Spellings fails in this job (or fails to live up to the big expectations that are being set for her…) it won’t be because she wasn’t a teacher.

Consider that few on either side of the aisle argue that Dick Riley was not an outstanding Secretary of Education. And it’s hard to believe that establishment education groups wouldn’t have jumped at a Paige for Riley swap at almost any point in the past four years. Yet Riley was a naval officer, attorney, and politician in his career not an educator.

However, another South Carolinian a few years older than Riley had experience as a public school superintendent. Should Clinton have nominated Strom Thurmond instead?

*Correction: Cavazos was a doctor, not a lawyer.

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