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Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as Voucher-Style Program Offers Clues To Paige's Outlook

Voucher-Style Program Offers Clues To Paige's Outlook

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When President-elect Bush introduced his designee for education secretary to the nation, he praised Rod Paige as a reformer who "believes parents ought to be trusted in making decisions for their children."

Vouchers were never mentioned in that Dec. 29 televised press conference, but Mr. Bush's position on them is clear: During the presidential campaign, he proposed allowing parents of students in chronically failing public schools to send their children to private schools using federal tax dollars.

Yet precisely where his choice for education secretary stands on that politically divisive issue remained something of a mystery last week. With no answer forthcoming from the secretary-designate himself or the Bush-Cheney transition team, the curious were left to glean what they could from Mr. Paige's seven- year record as the superintendent of the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District.

The rise of charter schools and the privatization of many noneducational services in Houston during Mr. Paige's tenure offer some clues to his views on diversifying public education, according to observers in Texas and Washington. But the most telling detail may be a little-known program the superintendent ushered into the district in 1996 that goes by the innocuous title "educational contracting."

The program initially permitted students whose neighborhood public schools were overcrowded to attend private schools near their homes at the district's expense. It was expanded in 1998 to give failing students in low- performing public schools the option of transferring to private institutions as well.

But parents have shown little interest in removing their children from an urban district that has seen rising test scores and broad public support.

While 300 students had used the program to transfer from overcrowded schools by 1998, the most recent year for which district officials could cite statistics, the only two students to participate in the failing-schools portion of the program did so this year. Further complicating matters is the fact that few private schools have expressed an interest in taking on hard-to-teach children from the public schools for the $4,100 annual payments the district offers.

A Voucher or Not?

Houston's program is regularly overlooked in debates and studies on the effects of vouchers and is rarely mentioned in the same breath with the more prominent programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida.

One reason may be the steadfast refusal of Mr. Paige and other district officials to call the program a voucher system. They have instead insisted it is simply part of a long-standing district practice of contracting with private and public entities for a variety of educational services.

"Our program is not a voucher," Mr. Paige wrote in a May 1998 letter to the Texas PTA, shortly after the Houston school board voted to expand the educational contracting program beyond its roots as a remedy for overcrowding. "Public education means providing every child a free and appropriate education. Where the school has not been able to do this, we wish to provide other options for that child."

The Houston policy has also largely avoided the controversy surrounding the higher-profile programs—all of which have had to contend with court challenges—because it requires that participating private schools be nonreligious. But critics of the program accuse the superintendent and his supporters of splitting hairs.

"Even though they say they don't support vouchers, they do," said Althea Williams, the president of the Houston Council of PTAs. "Any time you take public education dollars and invest them in private schools, it all boils down to vouchers."

Samantha Smoot, the executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that monitors such issues as the separation of church and state, agreed.

"Oddly enough, they continue to expand this program with very little demand from their constituents, and each time they've expanded it there has been a lot of dissension among parents' groups," Ms. Smoot said. "I think it's more a statement of political philosophy than a program HISD students have needed."

'Part of the Mix'

Last month, the Houston school board voted again to enlarge the contracting program, this time to allow as many as 100 district students attending failing schools to participate. Although only two students had used the policy to leave low performing public schools in the district, board member Marshall Lawrence said the policy change represented a good-faith effort to provide as many students as possible with every opportunity to learn.

"I think Dr. Paige's point of view is there must be options," Mr. Marshall said last week. "I think he supports educational contracting because the school district can hold the institution delivering the services accountable. Outright vouchers diminish the accountability factor, but our guidelines are very clear, and we approve the [private] schools."

Meanwhile, national education groups are reaching their own conclusions about Mr. Paige's agenda as the presumptive education secretary. Pro-voucher groups like the Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, in Milwaukee, applauded his nomination and his record of supporting school choice.

Kaleem M.S. Caire, the executive director of the BAEO, said his group firmly believes Mr. Paige is on its side. "Our organization supports vouchers for low-income families, and we believe that's something he would be supportive of," Mr. Caire said.

An opinion piece by Mr. Paige that appeared recently in Education Week suggests Mr. Caire may be right. "We believe that public funds should go to students, not institutions, and there may be a time when vouchers will be part of the mix," he wrote.

Other interest groups are raising red flags about Mr. Paige's appointment and calling into question whether he would uphold the constitutional prohibition on a government establishment of religion.

Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, pointed to a situation in 1999 in which Mr. Paige and the school board were negotiating with a parochial school operator to create a new school for public students who failed to meet the district's grade-promotion standards. The deal was dropped amid protests from groups such as Americans United.

"I think it would be very important to get on the record that Dr. Paige is not interested in a federal voucher program, that at the most he sees this as something the states should look into," Mr. Lynn said.

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 39

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