WASHINGTON (AP) _ As Cabinet members go, the education secretary typically sticks to domestic matters. But Margaret Spellings has put her own stamp on the job _ a passport stamp.

In less than a year and a half, Spellings has traveled to Afghanistan, England, Egypt, France, India, Italy, Japan, Jordan and Russia. Next up are Greece and Spain this month.

Spellings says she needs to travel to shape policies at home that reflect an understanding of the nations the United States competes against or financially aids.

Not everyone agrees.

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.''

Transportation, food and lodging for her overseas travel cost the Education Department $36,981, records show. The total cost of her travel was thousands of dollars higher, but a few trips were paid for by other agencies.

Since taking office in January 2005, Spellings has taken seven trips overseas. That's one more than her predecessor, Rod Paige, took during his entire four years in the Cabinet.

``We are looked to and admired around the world as people who know how to do education for the masses,'' Spellings said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

Spellings is traveling more than previous secretaries, because these are different times, said Christopher Cross, who has written a book about the history of the Education Department.

``We're so much more aware of the international competitiveness,'' said Cross, who served as assistant education secretary under the first President Bush. ``If she were sitting in her office and not doing any of these things, I would be even more concerned.''

Spellings' trips also result from her close relationship with President Bush, whom she met in Texas years ago. She served as top White House domestic adviser during Bush's first term.

Three of her 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 meeting international counterparts. Some examples:

_ Spellings traveled with members of Congress in April 2006 to Bangalore, New Delhi, and Agra in India 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 the eight largest industrial 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.

Paige had a more domestically focused mission, which was 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.

Spellings said the vast majority of her trips are within the United States.

``We will never, ever lose sight of our prime directive,'' Spellings said. That remains getting all children up to par in reading and math by 2014, the goal of Bush's education law.