Secretary of Education Rod Paige warned big-city administrators last week that school choice is taking a new shape, but he said that public schools have the capacity to ward off such competition by improving the education they provide.
In addition to charter schools and private schools, districts are likely to see growing competition from home schooling and new Internet-based education, or “cyber schools,” Mr. Paige said here March 18 at the Council of the Great City Schools’ annual legislative conference.
“We are in some real serious competition,” he said, “and we need to figure out who we are, because we can beat the competition.”
It was a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Paige, who, as the superintendent of the 210,000-Houston school district was a member of the group until earlier this year when President Bush tapped him as education secretary. In 1999, Mr. Paige received the group’s highest honor for superintendents.
The annual conference was attended by about 250 administrators and school board members from the large-city districts that belong to the 56-member council. During his speech, Mr. Paige avoided many of the more controversial aspects of the Bush administration’s education agenda, but defended its proposal to give vouchers to students in schools deemed persistently failing.
Mr. Paige asserted that many of public schools’ problems stem from an inadequate supply of well-trained teachers and a high turnover of top administrators and other school leaders. He also urged school leaders to be up-front with the public about test scores and other matters, whether good or bad.
He noted that there are excellent public schools throughout the country, but said that those are usually overshadowed. “There are some terrible private schools, and some excellent public schools,” the secretary said. “Don’t fear these private schools— you are better than they are.”
Sen. Clinton’s View
The next day, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., spoke to the group in what was billed as her first major education address since her election last November. She criticized the Bush administration’s education proposals, including the requirement that Title I students in grades 3-8 be tested annually by their states.
While Ms. Clinton said she doesn’t oppose President Bush’s calls for more accountability, she noted that many states and districts are already testing those students, and she said states would have to spend millions of dollars to restructure their tests to meet Mr. Bush’s proposed requirements.
“My question is not whether we should test students, instead, how do we ensure any new federal testing requirement complements and builds on what’s already in place?” said the former first lady. “We need an education budget that orders more tests, and gives the money to design and implement them.”
She and other Democrats also want to continue the Clinton administration’s plan to hire 100,000 new teachers, reduce class sizes, and help districts cover the costs of school construction and repairs.
“They say testing is a federal responsibility, but lowering class size, and building and repairing schools are not,” she said. Further, Ms. Clinton argued, the upcoming budget should target money toward high-needs districts, such as those in the council, and not be “siphoned off by the states.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Paige Warns Districts Of Increased Competition