School & District Management

President Accepts Paige’s Resignation

By Erik W. Robelen & Michelle R. Davis — November 15, 2004 7 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who has made promoting and carrying out the No Child Left Behind Act the focus of his tenure as the nation’s top education official, has resigned, pending the confirmation of a successor.

Margaret Spellings, President Bush’s chief domestic-policy adviser, was widely expected to be nominated to take over the helm of the Department of Education.

“I did not come to Washington as a career move,” Mr. Paige said in a Nov. 15 statement. “I came to help President Bush launch No Child Left Behind and Reading First, and to help establish a culture of accountability in American education.”

President Bush praised Mr. Paige for the “passion” he brought to the post.

“We have only begun the long-term transformation of education so that future generations can enjoy all of the promise and opportunity America has to offer,” Mr. Bush said in a Nov. 15 written statement. “Thanks to the hard work of Rod Paige, we have a very strong start and are well on our way to fulfilling that promise.”

Mr. Paige, 71, who previously was Houston’s superintendent of schools, is one of six Cabinet members who have offered their resignations to the president so far since Mr. Bush’s re-election this month. He was confirmed by the Senate in January 2001 as the seventh federal secretary of education.

At a Nov. 15 press conference, White House spokesman Scott McClellan made public the resignations of four Cabinet secretaries, including Mr. Paige, who follow two earlier announced departures. Mr. McClellan was asked repeatedly whether any of those leaving the Cabinet were doing so at the request of the president, but he declined to state flatly that none of the Cabinet members were asked to leave.

“All these individuals have come to their own decision about why they decided to submit letters of resignation,” Mr. McClellan said at one point. “Some of these discussions have been going on for some period of time.”

Others have suggested that Mr. Paige’s announcement wasn’t completely voluntary. Two education experts outside the Bush administration told Education Week last week that they had heard that White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had phoned Mr. Paige recently to ask him to resign.

“I hear that he has been told that he’s going,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Susan Aspey, Mr. Paige’s press secretary, said he was leaving of his own volition and was not asked to do so.

“The secretary has been wanting to leave for some time and has been trying to find the appropriate time to do so,” she said.

In his letter to President Bush, dated Nov. 5, three days after the election, Mr. Paige offered a fairly vague explanation of his plans.

“I believe … that this is an appropriate time for me to return to Texas where I can devote attention to a personal project, which I began planning prior to assuming my present responsibilities,” he wrote. Mr. Paige said his desire was to leave office at the completion of the president’s first term on Jan. 20, but said he would stay on further if a successor had not yet been confirmed by the Senate.

Asked to elaborate on the “personal project,” Ms. Aspey, the secretary’s spokeswoman, said, “He’s remodeling his house.”

The Public Face

Since President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in January 2002, Secretary Paige has been the law’s public face to a large extent. As a former district superintendent, he has a real-world education background that brought him instant credibility, said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

“His experience is amazing,” Ms. Kafer said. “I’m not sure that could be said about everyone who has served in that position.”

But he’s also seen as a somewhat clumsy speaker, and his tenure has included wrangling with the states over implementing the nuts and bolts of the federal school improvement law. Mr. Paige carries baggage from those battles.

In his most famous gaffe, Mr. Paige referred to the National Education Association earlier this year as a “terrorist organization” for what he saw as its obstructionist tactics to resist the No Child Left Behind Act. Although the secretary later apologized, the fallout has lingered.

Last week, some sources had said Secretary Paige would like to stay in his post for the time being.

“Secretary Paige is enjoying his job,” said John Danielson, his former chief of staff at the department, who is now a principal with the Dilenschneider Group, a management-consulting firm in New York City. “He is not somebody who has grown up in and around Washington, and he had to have time to learn it. Now he likes it.”

Richard W. Riley is the only education secretary who has stayed for two full presidential terms, having served all eight years under President Clinton. President Reagan’s third education secretary, Lauro F. Cavazos, was kept on for two years under Mr. Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush.

The Nov. 15 statement pointed out that Mr. Paige has served in the position longer than any other Republican.

In his letter to the president, Mr. Paige highlighted several achievements during his nearly four years at the Education Department.

“The No Child Left Behind Act’s (NCLB) reform initiatives have been well launched,” he said, noting that despite “highly financed and organized opposition,” all states have approved accountability plans and are “working vigorously to gain and maintain compliance” with the law.

He also noted, among other accomplishments, that the Education Department is soon expected to receive its third consecutive “clean” audit by an outside firm.

The Republican chairmen of both the House and the Senate education committees issued statements Nov. 15 praising Mr. Paige for his work at the department.

“He is a good man and a committed leader who will leave Washington having made a huge and positive difference for disadvantaged children, parents, teachers, and our nation’s future,” said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who heads the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“Under his leadership, the promises of the historic No Child Left Behind law are being realized,” said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “I applaud him and thank him for his efforts and service on behalf of our education system.”

The ‘Shadow Secretary’

Ms. Spellings has spent the past four years as an adviser to the president on domestic-policy issues, particularly education. She is often cited as one of the behind-the-scenes architects of the No Child Left Behind law. In Texas, Ms. Spellings was then-Gov. Bush’s education adviser, and she formerly was a lobbyist in Austin for the Texas Association of School Boards.

“She has been the shadow secretary of education for the last four years anyway,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington policy group, speaking before Mr. Paige’s resignation had been announced. “It would be logical for her to step out of the shadows.”

Mr. Finn, who was an assistant education secretary under President Reagan, suggested that putting Ms. Spellings at the helm of the Education Department could shift the interaction between the White House and the agency to a more traditional mode.

“In past administrations … there appeared to me to be a more collaborative or collegial relationship between the top people [at the department] and the White House,” he said. “This White House issues orders, and the Education Department follows them.”

It would be unusual, but not unheard of, for a White House policy adviser to move to a Cabinet position, said Paul C. Light, a political science professor at New York University who specializes in the federal appointment process. Noting that on the campaign trail Mr. Bush held up the No Child Left Behind Act as a key domestic accomplishment, such a shift “could be a reward to the White House person who was behind it,” Mr. Light said.

In fact, just last week, President Bush named another White House aide to the Cabinet, when he announced that legal counsel Alberto Gonzales was his pick to become the new attorney general.

Any nominee to lead the Education Department will have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Other high-level political appointees in the Education Department are also expected to leave the department, including Deputy Secretary Eugene W. Hickok, according to several education observers in Washington.

“I don’t think people are sitting there waiting for the dominoes to fall,” one source said before the announcement about Mr. Paige. “They’re making independent decisions.”

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