Urban Leaders See Paige As 'Our Own'

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Secretary of Education Rod Paige enters his new job with more experience in urban schools than any of his six predecessors.

That's why urban educators are hopeful that the former Houston superintendent and school board member will champion their causes—such as increasing aid to city schools, providing construction funds, and forging a federal policy on urban education—even as he helps lead the charge for President Bush's own extensive set of K-12 proposals.

In an interview last week, Mr. Paige stopped short of saying he would shoulder his former colleagues' agenda, signaling that they may be in for some disappointment.

"I recognize there are things unique to urban settings, and things unique to others," the 67-year-old education secretary said. "Our focus is on the entire nation. The entire system must work."

For now, that stance is not likely to sour the honeymoon between Mr. Paige and urban school leaders.

"We're tickled pink that one of our own has been elevated to such an important office," said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the superintendent of the Austin, Texas, schools. "The future of America is the future of urban education. If we're going to move America's productivity, we must move teaching and learning in the most complex learning centers."

Those sentiments are also setting the tone for urban school officials' cautious, but generally warm, reception for the education initiative President Bush outlined just days after taking office. Even with its provisions for linking federal aid to mandatory tests and the threat of education vouchers for students in persistently failing schools, the president's agenda is getting a close look. ("Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role," Jan. 31, 2001.")

While there may be small disagreements with the secretary on vouchers, we can share the concern about urban education," said William C. Thompson, the president of the New York City board of education.

Secretary Paige, for his part, promises to nurture his connections with urban educators. "Those guys are a tremendous source of valuable information. Assuming they'll cooperate, they'll be my lifeline," he said. "I'll be calling them."

'Not a Repudiation'

Urban leaders had reason to hope for a more aggressive commitment to city schools from Mr. Paige, who begins his third week at the Department of Education this week.

After all, his was one of five names on a letter released last fall by the Council of the Great City Schools calling on the next president to make urban education a national priority. At the time, Mr. Paige was the secretary- treasurer of the Washington-based coalition of urban districts.

The document seeks support for increased spending on targeted federal programs and school construction, as well as help improving the climate for discussing urban education policy. "The gratuitous denigration of urban education is neither motivating nor productive," it states.

Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of the 40,000-student Rochester, N.Y., schools, hopes Mr. Paige will use the document as a compass for federal policy on inner-city schools.

"It was done very thoughtfully," said Mr. Janey, whose name is also on the letter. "It offers opportunities for the federal government to position itself and intervene where appropriate."

But Mr. Paige explained last week that he did not actually sign the letter, and that his name appeared on it because he was an officer in the group.

"It's not a repudiation," he said of his clarification. "I'd simply say that my ideas are contained in the plan that the president has before Congress."

Asked if he would push for federal school construction aid, he said it was too early to make any promises, especially with so much work to do on Mr. Bush's plan.

"I know firsthand of the need to increase funds for construction," the secretary said. "There can be some dialogue on those issues, and I'm sure there will be."

In general, Mr. Paige added, "the president has promised increased funding, and I expect his budget will reflect that."

Mr. Bush is expected to propose his first budget later this month.

The president's sweeping education plan aims to raise the academic achievement of black and Hispanic students to the levels of their white and Asian-American peers, the secretary noted. "That means getting help to where students are the neediest, and that gives urban people a place to hang their hat," he added.

Urban Agenda

Urban educators are not likely to back away from seeking a federal policy specifically on urban education. Currently, the closest approximation is an urban education grant program that was authorized in the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but has not been funded.

Historically, it's been hard to get Congress to single out inner- city schools for aid, observers note, especially if it is perceived that such efforts would trim money from rural or suburban constituents. The $8.6 billion Title I program, the flagship federal effort to aid disadvantaged K-12 students, dispenses aid widely to schools throughout the nation.

Urban districts also suffer an image problem in the Congress, said Vic Klatt, the former education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

"While being supportive of their goals and getting money to where it's most needed, members of Congress have been skeptical about [urban districts'] ability to spend money and manage it wisely," said Mr. Klatt, who is now a vice president of Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington lobbying firm.

Mr. Thompson of the 1.1 million-student New York district said such stereotypes are less true these days.

"A lot has changed here. When you ask for things, you don't talk about need, but what the outcomes will be," he said. "All urban systems across the nation must talk about that."

Still, urban leaders hold out hope that Mr. Paige eventually will take the lead on forming a federal policy for urban schools.

"Our work as advocates needs to be complemented and supported by a federal policy, so the work we do isn't resonating just with those voices in urban America," Mr. Janey said.

Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the 64,000-student Boston schools and a former assistant education secretary under President Clinton, said such a policy is also good business: "Rather than distributing dollars over lots of different things and getting a mile wide and an inch deep, you need to get deep in a few areas."

If Mr. Paige is reluctant to sign on to an urban policy, that is fine with Judie S. Budnick, who sits on the Broward County, Fla., school board. "I don't believe in top-down management," said Ms. Budnick, who stressed that she's a Republican. Yet she welcomes direction from the new secretary.

"He can preach to us because of what he has accomplished," she said of his well-regarded tenure in Houston.

Test Question

Meanwhile, in showing openness toward President Bush's proposal for test-based accountability, urban school leaders may be making their best case for help from Congress.

Mr. Bush would require states to administer annual reading and mathematics tests to all students in grades 3-8 as a condition of receiving federal Title I aid. The federal government would not develop those tests itself, but would help pay for their creation.

"Now, you see more interest [in Congress] in getting money to urban schools, coupled with accountability," Mr. Klatt said. "That makes it easier to consider."

Openness toward testing proposals emanating from the White House hasn't always been the case. In 1997, when President Clinton called for a system of new national examinations, urban districts balked.

"The difference is that President Clinton's proposal emphasized a single national testing program, while President Bush would let tests be developed by the local and state processes," said Roger C. Cuevas, the superintendent of the 361,000-student Miami-Dade County schools in Florida. "Accountability with flexibility. That's what I like."

While conceding his reservations about some of the potential penalties for poor performance outlined in the Bush plan, Mr. Janey said he hoped that approach would ultimately force states to pay closer attention to their own cities.

"The fact that states will be held to some standard of accountability is refreshing," the Rochester superintendent said. "The focus has always been on districts and schools."

In another signal that many urban districts are less hostile to new testing initiatives than they once were, as many as 15 members of the Council of the Great City Schools are poised to volunteer for a trial program to give the National Assessment of Educational Progress to their students. The NAEP governing board, which oversees the assessment given to samples of U.S. students, has voted to support the exam, which would yield the first nationally comparable student-performance data on urban districts.

Congress must approve the trial, and provide the money to pay for it.

"This could allow us to compare Houston, Philadelphia, and Seattle, as we can now make comparisons between Washington [state] and Texas," said Roy Truby, the executive director of national assessments for the governing board. "The board is hopeful that the new secretary will support this."

Secretary Paige also will have to try out his political skills on Capitol Hill, where testing remains a sticky issue for many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who joined with Republicans in opposing Mr. Clinton's national-test proposal.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., a member of the caucus, said the group has many of the same concerns with Mr. Bush's testing proposals as it did with Mr. Clinton's plans for new national tests.

"The notion that black people oppose testing is not true," he said. "The problem we have is how testing is used. If they're used to track students for the rest of their lives, then we have a problem."

While sensitive to such concerns, Mr. Paige is unapologetic. "People will use tests poorly if their intentions are wrong," he said. "But the worst thing that can happen to urban and minority kids is that they are not tested—people can say they are improving when they are not."

Staff Writer Karla Scoon Reid contributed to this report.

Vol. 20, Issue 21, Pages 1, 24

Published in Print: February 7, 2001, as Urban Leaders See Paige As 'Our Own'
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Our story inadvertently mischaracterized the position of some urban districts toward President Clinton's 1997 proposal for national tests. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, 15 urban districts agreed to participate.

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