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Education Secretary-Designate Rod Paige

January 10, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Within moments of being announced as George W. Bush’s choice to head the Department of Education, Houston School Superintendent Roderick Paige set out a vision of public education.

ROD PAIGE, Secretary of Education-Designate: When we set high standards for our schools and our children and we give our schools and our children the support they need and hold them accountable for results, public education can get the job done.

KWAME HOLMAN: The son of a Mississippi librarian and a school principal, Paige earned a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, and master’s and doctorate degrees in physical education from Indiana University. Moving to Houston, he coached the football team and served as athletic director at Texas Southern University. In 1984, he became dean of its School of Education. He was elected to Houston’s Board of Education in 1989, and five years later became superintendent of schools. During the 1980s, the former Democrat worked for Republican candidates, including George Bush, Sr.’s presidential campaign. He met and became friendly with Governor Bush when both men worked on a mentoring program in Houston. But Paige hasn’t always agreed with Governor Bush. He openly criticized Texas’s lack of assistance for construction projects and modernization plans for deteriorating schools. The Houston Independent School District Paige still oversees is the largest in Texas and seventh largest in the nation. It was in trouble when Paige took over, and he’s credited with helping turn it around. Paige ended the practice of promoting students despite failing grades. Under his leadership, the percentage of Houston’s students passing state achievement tests rose from 37% seven years ago to 73% now. Houston’s schools rank among the highest performing in Texas. Paige also added security measures in city schools, employing random metal detectors and video cameras. Violent crimes in schools have dropped 20%.

ROD PAIGE: The bottom line is our buildings are old, our space is limited, and we’ll have to address that at some point.

KWAME HOLMAN: Three years ago, voters showed enough confidence in Houston’s schools to back a $678 million school construction bond. But Paige also has drawn criticism. In 1996, he created a program that allowed students from overcrowded city schools to attend private, secular schools at school district expense. Critics labeled it a voucher program. Paige’s initiative to evaluate school administrators’ performance based on their students’ performance on statewide tests also drew fire. Critics say it encourages teachers to teach the tests rather than a substantive curriculum. This morning on Capitol Hill, Roderick Paige was questioned on those and other issues as he began the confirmation process with a hearing before the Senate’s Labor and Education Committee. The committee’s temporary chairman, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, quickly got to the education policy he and other Democrats most oppose: School vouchers.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Do you feel that taxpayer dollars should be spent on improving public schools, or will you make private school vouchers a priority?

ROD PAIGE: I am a passionate promoter of public education. My job as school superintendent in Houston was to make the point that urban public education– and through emphasis, rural public education– can get the job done given the right certain circumstances. The term “vouchers” presented, that I read in the papers… has acquired such a negative tone that I never use it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Paige went on to explain that partial payment of private school tuition is only part of providing a choice in Houston’s school system.

ROD PAIGE: I do believe in parental choice, and I think that parental choice is a necessary condition to effective public education. But choice has many forms. Magnet School Choice that we have in Houston… about 20% of our students choose to go to various magnet schools inside the Houston Independent School District. We have m-to-m choice. Transfers for 15% of the students take advantage this type of choice. This means that if you are attending a school where your ethnic membership is in the majority, you are free to attend the school where your ethnic membership is in the minority. Charter schools, the Houston Independent School District operates about 20 charter schools. There are about 10,000 students enrolled in those charter schools. Those schools are chartered by the Houston Independent School District. Although they are operated by independent operators, they are nonetheless a part of our system. And those 10,000 students are our students; although they are educated in these charter schools, we are still responsible for them. And we arrange for them to be provided services through these charter schools, but we do not shed ourselves of the responsibility of the education of these children. I think that there’s room for us to talk about this, and I’m willing to hear and eager to hear your views, because I know inside the interests of the common good, that we can find a way to make public schools work.

KWAME HOLMAN: New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman noted that Paige supports George W. Bush’s call to give public schools a chance to improve before private school vouchers are offered to parents.

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN: We haven’t had the commitment in Congress that is essential to put funding there, so that states can assist failing schools. You support doing that.

RODERICK PAIGE: Absolutely. May I give you an example –


RODERICK PAIGE: — of how we operate that in the Houston Independent School District? We have a budgeted fund called the Targeted School Fund, and this fund is there specifically to help students… I mean schools who are having some difficulty meeting their achievement targets. We bring those schools in and we talk to them and we ask them about their ideas about closing the gap. And when they provide for us strategies that might cost more than the normal funding, then they convince us that these are ways they are going to improve the operation, then we fund them. And that funding goes over and above the typical funding, the traditional funding they would get. So not only do we need to identify them as in need, but we need to also provide the technical assistance that they need in order to close that gap. If there is some specific time they are still unable to achieve, then we have to make some change at that point.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone was concerned about President-elect Bush’s call to withhold federal funds from schools whose students don’t perform well on national standardized tests.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: I don’t know one study that comes from people that are doing testing that says anything other than you don’t rely on one test. You have multiple tests in order to have accountability. That’s what you need to do. I mean, there is all the debate about whether or not this has led to more drop out, there’s all debate about whether or not who passes these tests, who doesn’t pass these tests. But the other question is, it is an abuse of these tests to only use one test to determine whether a kid goes from third to fourth grade, eighth to ninth, or graduates. My question for you again is, because I told you about it earlier, will you make a commitment that the federal government will not tell a school in Minnesota or a school district in Minnesota, “if you don’t rely on… if you don’t use standardized tests to determine how you’re doing, we are going to cut off federal funding.” Will you make a commitment you won’t leverage federal funds that way?

ROD PAIGE: Senator, I do agree that one test offers very little information. You need multiple tests to be… to make valid – to draw valid conclusions. I do agree with that. But I’m concerned a little about the negative tone that tests have generated across the country. And the purpose of the test is not to deny people things or to bring about negative impact. The purpose of the testing is to determine whether or not we’ve been effective in whatever efforts and methods that we’re using.

KWAME HOLMAN: Paige’s confirmation as Education Secretary seems almost a certainty. If so, he will be the first who actually has run a school system, as well as the first African American secretary.