Margaret Spellings is the secretary of education, not the secretary of defense, but she may nevertheless be the bravest member of President Bush’s cabinet.
Ms. Spellings, capping a visit on Tuesday to New York City, sat down as the evening’s guest on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, a comedy program on cable television known for its caustic — and decidedly left-of-center — treatment of current events. Ms. Spellings appeared last fall as an unsuccessful contestant on the game show Jeopardy, but The Daily Show promised to present her with a different sort of challenge.
Mr. Stewart began by handing his guest a traditional gift for teachers, a polished apple. He also pulled out a No. 2 pencil and a children’s lunch snack. He then praised Ms. Spellings’s willingness to submit to his questions, calling her the only top administration official “who is not allergic to me.”
Their eight-minute encounter at the end of Mr. Stewart’s half-hour program went without any of the more pointed jabs that the comedian routinely levels at Mr. Bush and his administration.
He asked several questions about the No Child Left Behind law, the federal statute that requires states to test grade-school students in subjects that include mathematics and reading. Ms. Spellings responded with some well-worn talking points about the need to fix a system in which half of all minority children don’t finish high school on time.
Mr. Stewart expressed exasperation when his guest repeated the president’s trademark warning against schools’ practicing “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” He got his most animated response — an exaggerated impish grin from the secretary — when he suggested that she might “smite the teachers’ unions” if given one moment of omnipotent authority over education policy.
Before finishing with the secretary, Mr. Stewart raised the subject of the scandal in the student-loan industry, a controversy that has prompted both colleges and lenders to change practices, pay legal settlements, and fire some top officials.
In a reference to an audience member, Mr. Stewart said he had a “lady up here” who is “very mad” about her college loans.
Ms. Spellings said she’s undertaking a far-reaching examination of the problem. “There’s obviously issues in the way everybody runs student loans,” the secretary said. “We have to fix the system comprehensively. It’s not just one little thing.” —Paul Basken