Paige Steps Into GOP Convention Spotlight

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As Republicans prepared for their party’s convention in New York City this week, Secretary of Education Rod Paige was scheduled for a prime-time speaking slot to talk up President Bush’s signature education accomplishment.

Mr. Paige was on a slate of Aug. 31 speakers that was also to include first lady Laura Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Party officials hoped the secretary, who is African-American, would help broaden the GOP’s appeal to minority voters and inspire viewers with his passion for the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some political observers, meanwhile, were speculating about whether the secretary’s speech would be a look forward to continued service if President Bush is re-elected—or a swan song for the 71-year-old Mr. Paige.

"I expect wholesale changes in [the president’s] Cabinet" if Mr. Bush wins a second term in November, said Thomas E. Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"Some will leave because they are tired and anxious to move on," he said, "others because the president and his advisers believe they can do better. … I would not be surprised to see fresh leadership come to the Department of Education."

Education was expected to get more attention at the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 Republican National Convention than it did in July at the Democrats’ gathering in Boston, where classroom issues were largely overshadowed by national security and the economy. ("Kerry Aiming for the Center on Education," Aug. 11, 2004.)

From the helm of the Education Department, Mr. Paige has overseen the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, which poses ambitious demands for raising student achievement and deals out increasingly strong consequences for schools that fail to make the grade.

Taking on the Critics

Despite criticism of the law from some quarters, the former Houston schools superintendent has relentlessly preached his belief in the bipartisan measure.

In a July essay in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Paige blasted leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People over their criticism of parts of the law and its consequences.

Mr. Paige sees "No Child Left Behind as the next important phase of the civil rights movement, and his concern was that civil rights leaders were doing a disservice by rejecting the law," said Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based lobbying group for chief executives of many of the nation’s largest corporations. "I think that rationale for No Child Left Behind is one that the administration wants to put at the center of the debate."

Mr. Paige’s prominent speaking role at Madison Square Garden this week also gives the GOP a chance to engage black voters and possibly draw them closer to the party. In recent decades, African-Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic, and Republicans have said they’re renewing an effort to draw more racial diversity to their party.

"They want to increase their percentage of the African- American vote, and he’s something they think can help," said Jack Jennings, a former top aide to House Democrats on education and now the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research organization. "It’s better for the administration to have an African-American take on the critics than someone else."

But Mr. Paige also brings some baggage to the podium. Some say he hasn’t always been a strong public speaker, and they question his political skills. In February, he made a serious gaffe that has continued to reverberate among teachers: He called the National Education Association—which has sharply criticized the No Child Left Behind Act—a "terrorist organizaton." He later apologized for the comment.

"He’s a nice guy who is fairly well liked everywhere, but was never really well-versed in the way Washington works and is not always in a lot of situations the most effective public speaker," said one education lobbyist, who asked not to be named.

In the ramped-up speculation over Mr. Paige’s post-Nov. 2 future, views differ on whether the department would see a changing of the guard if President Bush is re-elected.

"In all likelihood, Rod Paige has done his duty and will probably retire," said Susan B. Neuman, a former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the current Bush administration, who left Washington last year. "Even among [the No Child Left Behind law’s] most enthusiastic supporters, there is a view that there are some things that are awry, and that some new regulations need to be put in place to work more smoothly."

Secretary Spellings?

Some education insiders say they’ve already received information that Mr. Paige would not return for a second term.

"In the case of Paige, we’ve been told pretty directly that he will not be the secretary of education under a second Bush administration," said one education lobbyist.

When asked about the secretary’s plans if the president defeats Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in November, Mr. Paige’s press secretary, Susan Aspey, replied: "The secretary has said that he serves at the pleasure of the president. He’s [too] busy working with the states to implement the law right now to speculate."

Rumors abound as to who might become secretary in a second term. The names mentioned run the gamut from Margaret Spellings, Mr. Bush’s domestic-policy adviser, to Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, to state education chiefs and district leaders.

But the decision to stay or go may be one that Mr. Paige has to make on his own.

"My guess is that Bush would have no desire to make a change in education if he could keep Paige there, … partly because Paige has carried a lot of heavy water for him," said Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on politics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"It’s up to Paige," Mr. Jennings said. "I think he enjoys the role, … the spotlight. It’s a star position, especially in education right now. Everybody wants to talk about No Child Left Behind."

And if Mr. Bush asked Mr. Paige to leave, Mr. Jennings said, "Bush would be criticized for asking the second most prominent black American to leave the Cabinet."

Mr. Paige is one of three Cabinet secretaries who are black. The others are Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and a relative newcomer, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson.

PHOTO: Secretary of Education Rod Paige, center, listens to Art Shell, a National Football League executive, during a visit to Timken High School in Canton, Ohio, last month.
—Michael S. Balash/The Repository/AP

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Pages 32, 35

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Paige Steps Into GOP Convention Spotlight
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