Secretary of Education Rod Paige has a room with a view decidedly different from the one out of his former office in Houston. Off to the east, at a sharp angle, stands the white-domed building where Congress spent much of the spring haggling over an overhaul of Washington’s role in American education.
For Mr. Paige, the first working district-level educator to step into the secretary’s office, his six-month tenure here has been something of an education in itself. Asked about his new role, he shifts to the edge of his seat and tells what it’s like for a superintendent of schools to join the president’s Cabinet.
“The first two months was a blur,” he said recently, with a loud snap of his fingers, the cuffs of his dark business suit lapping the tops of his pointed, black cowboy boots.
Rod Paige’s primary role so far has been to promote policies rather than to initiate them. On June 27, he joined Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice president, at a Wheaton, Md., library to talk about reading.
In an hourlong interview with Education Week, Mr. Paige addressed questions about his early stewardship of the Department of Education, explained his role in the education overhaul now before Congress, refuted rumors that he might quit and return to Texas, and laid out his vision for how he and President Bush believe they can help improve America’s schools.
Congress has been slow to confirm his senior managers, and Senate approval of the entire team of top officials may still be months ahead. And the one-two punch of lobbying for the Bush education plan and introducing himself to the strange new world of national politics has been a load to handle.
Some Washington lobbyists and people who work inside the Education Department argue that Mr. Paige himself hasn’t made his job any easier. Requiring that virtually all decisions in the 4,800-employee agency be approved by his office has hamstrung the workforce, they say. That edict, along with the perceived tension between a Republican secretary and a department seen as more in tune with Democratic leadership, has sent morale plummeting, some employees say.
Reports of troubles at the department are creeping into the national press. A column in U.S. News & World Report published the rumor that Mr. Paige might quit. And The New Republic asked why the secretary hadn’t been more active in lobbying for the Bush education plan on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Paige, the first African-American to serve as education secretary, comes across in person as no- nonsense and intense. He has a formality about him that stands in contrast to the folksy ease of his predecessor, Richard W. Riley, a former South Carolina governor. His native Mississippi twang, flattened by a slight, acquired Texas drawl, rolls out in sometimes machine-gun quick cadences. He has a tendency to interrupt himself with short conversational U-turns and digressions.
He blames his department’s slow start, in part, on Congress’ deliberate process for considering the administration’s appointees. And he vigorously dismisses the stories that he might step down. In fact, Mr. Paige, 68, the divorced father of an adult son, has been spending what little spare time he has decorating the townhouse he recently bought just a few blocks from the Education Department.
“Under no circumstances” is he contemplating an early departure, Mr. Paige said in the June 19 interview. “The answer is no.”
On the contrary, the secretary said, he feels a “growing confidence” in the job, especially since he realized how valuable his experience was as the superintendent, and before then a school board member, in Houston. That’s the country’s sixth-largest school district, with about 210,000 students and nearly 30,000 employees.
“I realized what I was talking about is my life, and what I’ve done for the last seven years,” he said.
He added: “And I feel like I’ve got a lot to offer. ... I’m the only one up here that can say, ‘I did it, I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ This ain’t theory, you know?”
People who know and have worked closely with Mr. Paige say he’s getting a better feel for the role of education secretary.
Sandy Kress, the president’s chief education adviser at the White House and a former chairman of the Dallas school board, has labored in the Texas education vineyards for years with Mr. Paige.
“I really think we’re about to get over the hump,” Mr. Kress said.
Mr. Kress did acknowledge some turbulence in the early months of the Bush administration, but shied away from specifics. “There are problems and issues we have to deal with, some of which I can’t tell you about,” he said. “Give ‘em three, four, five months.”
Don McAdams, a Houston school board member, expressed confidence in his friend and former colleague. “You’ll have to ask him [about any troubles as secretary]. I think he’s just frustrated with how slowly his team is getting put into place.”
“He’s really good at thinking through a system with lots of moving parts,” Mr. McAdams added. “If I wanted advice from someone ... there is no one that I know that I’d call before I’d call Rod.”
Mr. Paige said his broad goals for the agency and public schools are important enough to keep him focused, saying he wants to see “a new day in education in the United States of America.”
“Looking at the data, we cannot depart from the issues that as a system, we have not gotten it done yet,” he said.
Children who don’t have access to excellent schools aren’t receiving the same quality of education other students receive, he added. “And they’re being left,” he said, echoing the “No Child Left Behind” theme of President Bush’s education plan, which stresses heightened accountability for student achievement, primarily through a new testing requirement.
‘A Virtual Ghost Town’
Secretary Paige so far has had only a skeleton crew of senior managers to run his department.
Even under Republican leadership of the Senate—before Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont tipped the balance by leaving the GOP in May—most of the department’s appointees requiring Senate confirmation had not been cleared. And Mr. Bush has announced his choices for Mr. Paige’s management team in fits and starts. For instance, the president revealed his selections for two of the most important assistant secretaries, to oversee civil rights and special education, only late last month.
The impact of such delays, Mr. Paige said, cannot be underestimated.
“Today, I’m on the phone with members of the Senate, OK? Essentially a plea to them saying, ‘Look, we need our people in place to get on down the road with the people’s business,’ ” the secretary said. “It has been a burden of the first class to be this far down the road without our first team on the field. I don’t think there’s any negative reasons or there’s any individual responsible. But the system impedes progress and needs to be fixed really bad.”
The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says the problem with appointments runs across federal agencies. Of the 495 top nominees, only 120 had been confirmed by late June. Another 144 had been selected. Twelve of Mr. Paige’s 15 top officials had been named or nominated, but only Deputy Secretary William D. Hansen, his second in command, had been confirmed.
During the last change of administrations, President Clinton had nominated all of his top Education Department officials by June 1993, according to the Congressional Research Service, and most of those had been confirmed by then as well. Until confirmation, nominees cannot perform the official duties their jobs entail. And with Democrats now in control of the Senate, it’s likely that the process could be further delayed and that some of Mr. Paige’s team won’t be confirmed until 2002.
The list of those in limbo includes the agency’s designated undersecretary and third- ranking official, Eugene W. Hickok, the former Pennsylvania secretary of education.
“If I were in [Mr. Paige’s] shoes, I’d be thinking, ‘This is clearly a mistake. It’s no fun to be a Cabinet secretary,’ ” said a former Clinton administration official who asked not to be named.
James W. Guthrie, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College who is writing a book with Mr. Paige and University of Virginia professor Frederick M. Hess, says the seventh-floor offices at the Education Department look unnaturally spare.
“You walk down those corridors near him, and the offices are almost empty,” Mr. Guthrie said. “That’s not his fault.”
Former Secretary Riley, in an interview, said that the job is a tough assignment, and that he understands how frustrating the appointments process can be. He suggested that Mr. Paige rely on longtime agency employees to help him through the transition.
“You can’t come in and immediately hire your staff. It doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Riley said. “I went through the same kind of experience when I first arrived.”
Meanwhile, some employees at the Education Department, and others who work closely with the agency from the outside, express dismay at how Mr. Paige has managed the agency so far.
On Jan. 24, he sent a memo to all department employees: “Effective immediately I am placing a moratorium on all policy decisions, personnel selections, reassignments or promotions, and the awarding of any new grants or contracts. In the interim, any necessary exceptions to this moratorium will be considered on a case-by-case basis only.” The moratorium remained in effect as of last week.
Funneling all requests through the secretary’s office—hiring clerical workers, publishing reports, issuing grant checks to states—is inefficient, and in some cases ridiculous, some employees and observers say.
Interviews with numerous department workers, all of whom believe that the memo and recent agency practice prohibit them from talking with the press, revealed many common concerns.
One person spoke of a “level of mistrust that’s unbelievable.” Another questioned why the secretary would want to make every decision in the entire agency directly: “Can you run a huge agency in this control-and-command fashion?”
Another employee was more tempered, but shared many of the same worries. “I understand the transition does take time, but I would have thought we’d be much farther along than we are today,” that person said. “All of those things you learn about leadership and team-building ... none of those things seem to be happening.”
Mr. Paige responded that any delays in hiring or other decisions had been “minimal.” He added that department employees shouldn’t be surprised to watch the agency do business differently from the way it did before.
“This is a new administration,” he said. “We’re not here to perpetuate the continuation of what existed....So much of what they’ve been accustomed to, much of what they’re into, what they built their lives around for the last eight years, is not here anymore.”
The secretary was skeptical of Education Department employees at first, said Mr. Guthrie, the professor at Vanderbilt. “He thought they would be slothful and generally uncommitted, and he’s found that’s not true at all,” Mr. Guthrie said.
Mr. Paige blames many of the problems on a lack of communication between senior officials and the department’s employees—which will improve once all the new appointees are in place, he said.
“Most of these places that you’re talking about, their chief officer is not in place,” he said.
The secretary added that his management style would be “a collaborative one,” and that employees will have their say. But he plans to keep a firm hand on the wheel, at least until his assistant secretaries are confirmed. “They’ll have their voices heard, but the decisions will be made by the organization. ... This isn’t to demean anybody. It is to say that we are not a coalition of stovepipes and silos,” he said. “The department is, I think, justified in saying, ‘Here are the mechanisms in place through which these kinds of decisions are made.’”
His goals for the agency include an upgrade in customer service. “Here is the first thing we do: One is, we serve as exemplars of the president’s behavior,” Mr. Paige said. “That is, to be courteous, to be all those things.”
Next, he wants to convert President Bush’s education ideas into programs that work. That includes a concentration on educational research, he said, aimed at making it better known in schools, and will require an overhaul of the office of educational research and improvement.
“That’s going to change that organization considerably,” Mr. Paige said.
‘Invisible’ on ESEA?
Critics say Mr. Paige had, at most, a peripheral role in the sculpting and selling of the legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently perched on Capitol Hill awaiting a conference committee to agree on its final version. White House advisers—principally Mr. Kress and another Texan, Margaret La Montagne—took the lead in talks with Congress. The secretary, meanwhile, spent some time away from Washington visiting schools and appearing at conferences to discuss the president’s plan.
But Mr. Paige says his role on Mr. Bush’s education advisory team during the 2000 campaign was significant, as the president modeled his plan after changes he made as Texas governor. The secretary, noting that the education plan was already written as he arrived in Washington, did acknowledge that his agency spent more time “defending the ideas” in the ESEA, the main vehicle for Mr. Bush’s proposals, while he anticipates “developing the ideas” contained in future legislation.
To some, however, Secretary Paige’s role has seemed notably diminished from that of the man he succeeded. Seeing Mr. Kress on Capitol Hill without Mr. Paige signaled a problem, noted one former aide to Mr. Riley who asked to remain anonymous. By comparison, then-Secretary Riley, according to his staff and congressional aides, frequently met with members of Congress and their advisers, sometimes into the wee hours of night, and was an active player in behind-the-scenes negotiations.
“He’s been invisible,” one Democratic congressional aide said of Mr. Paige. “In terms of a role, there’s been just a little bit of show and no substance.”
“Rod is not in control of the shop—the major decisions are coming from the White House,” added Arnold Fege, the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a consulting group for generally liberal-leaning education groups, and a veteran Washington lobbyist. “The lack of understanding about the department culture has been a liability for this administration and for Rod Paige to get a jump on ESEA policy.”
Mr. Riley, as a two-term governor, had the advantage of having had eight years’ experience in working the legislative machinery. And the preceding ESEA reauthorization, in 1994, did not occur until a year after the Clinton administration took office.
Mr. Riley was, however, immediately and intimately involved in crafting Goals 2000, a piece of legislation that created grants for state-administered standards and accountability programs. President Clinton introduced Goals 2000 in his first 100 days, and it passed early in Mr. Riley’s second year on the job.
In contrast, Mr. Paige arrived after the current ESEA revision had been debated in Congress for two years and much of its course had already been set by lawmakers. Then President Bush made it a top legislative priority after unveiling his education plan just three days after his inauguration.
Mr. Paige’s role in the coming reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and of the law governing the department’s research arm, may offer a more definitive picture of his legislative savvy.
Beyond that, the modern presidency does not necessarily cast Cabinet members as leading policymakers.
“You never know how much say secretaries really have. We’ve had ‘kitchen cabinets’ since I first started in Congress,” said former Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who served in Congress for 26 years and chaired the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
He agreed, though, that Mr. Riley did have quite a bit of say on legislative issues. While the Clinton White House sent its advisers to negotiate the nitty-gritty details of legislation, particularly on appropriations bills, they were in touch with Mr. Riley constantly, Mr. Goodling said.
Mr. Guthrie, the professor who is working on a book with Mr. Paige, said, “More and more policy is made by the White House, I don’t care whether Republican or Democrat.” A researcher who studied the secretary’s reforms in Houston and came away impressed, Mr. Guthrie said the secretary understands how policy is developed on a large scale and eventually should do well in Washington.
“There’s no pretense about him. That will go over well,” Mr. Guthrie said. “He knows the processes, even if the stakes are different.”
His supporters say that the secretary has done just fine in his new role, and that they expect him to advocate their causes effectively once he gets his staff in place.
“He’s really digging in on understanding the issues and various elements of the reauthorizations and management,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education. Mr. Cross was an assistant secretary for research in the first Bush administration.
Managing the Money
Apart from the secretary’s role in crafting education policy and working to see Congress pass it, no area is more politically sensitive than the department’s financial management. That may be especially true for a Republican, given longtime GOP opposition to a Cabinet-level education agency.
Throughout the Education Department’s 23-year history, many conservatives have branded it a wasteful and unneeded federal bureaucracy and called for shutting it down, most recently after Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995. While the movement to kill the agency has been largely rhetorical and has never progressed beyond the proposal stage, the pounding has taken its toll on the agency’s reputation.
With the idea of abolishing the department purged from the Republican Party platform in 2000 and President Bush favoring active federal involvement in setting the nation’s education agenda, Mr. Paige took office in a far more secure environment than the first Republican secretary of education, Terrel H. Bell, did 20 years ago.
But Secretary Paige also entered a department laboring under a cloud of failed audits and, unrelated to those audits, a spate of fraud indictments. Mr. Paige’s energetic denunciations of those troubles, and pledges to clean up Dodge, have only exacerbated what figured to be an uncomfortable introduction to his department anyway.
Mr. Cross said that most new administrations are skeptical of the federal government’s career workers. “Any new administration that comes in has an automatic distrust of the people who were there and worked with the people of the previous administrations,” he said.
For the past three years, the Education Department has failed to receive a “clean” audit because of missing and incomplete records. A recent study by the General Accounting Office found that $450 million had been “lost” through duplicate payments, restitutions, and fines. At least $250 million of that has been recovered.
To further complicate the situation, 11 people, including four current employees, were indicted in May on charges of stealing computers and other equipment and padding their pay using phony expense reports, for a total of more than $1 million.
One of Mr. Paige’s first actions was to put together a team of eight employees to investigate the department’s financial management and make recommendations. (“Paige Announces Plan To Address Mismanagement,” April 25, 2001).
The team meets with Mr. Paige weekly, and he says it will present a report later this summer.
“Our idea was to hit it with a sledgehammer, to make the point that integrity is important to us,” the secretary said.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., has led an investigation into the department’s financial affairs and contends that there may be much more fraud and abuse still to be uncovered.
Mr. Hansen, the deputy secretary to Mr. Paige, whose job is to manage the daily functions of the agency, said in an interview that the new administration wants to create “a culture of accountability.” He noted the absence of any formal chief financial officer in the department during the Clinton years and suggested that criticism of past management is easily justified. Those facts “speak for themselves,” he said.
Former Secretary Riley strongly contests criticism of the department’s fiscal management during his tenure. In an opinion piece written for Education Week, he says the complaints come from “conservative ideologues” who seek to “undermine the integrity” of a department they failed to abolish.
Mr. Riley and his staff maintain that they inherited an even bigger problem eight years ago, and that they made strong improvements to hold employees more accountable, to keep equipment more secure, and to track spending, particularly for student financial aid.
The biggest obstacle, according to Mr. Riley and his aides, was that a new computer system employed to keep track of the agency’s financial data was not capable of handling the data, thus resulting in the failed audits. But Mr. Riley says he is confident that new equipment his staff tested will soon be in place to solve those problems, and he predicts a clean audit for this year.
If Secretary Paige stays through Mr. Bush’s entire term and into a potential second one, he hopes by then to see America’s schools and the federal Department of Education undergo fundamental changes that could strengthen both the schools and the agency and help them serve the public better.
That means alternative ways of delivering education, he said, with an emphasis on learning through the Internet. He wants all states to develop systems that track student enrollment and achievement data more carefully, so that decisions about instruction, dropouts, and other matters can be made using better evidence. He wants better services for children with disabilities and to address what he says is the “overenrollment” of minority students in special education program.
Mr. Paige’s interest in special education comes as the administration begins to focus on reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which could arrive as a legislative issue later this year. The secretary pledges to work with education groups closely on that legislation.
Mr. McAdams, the secretary’s friend and colleague in Houston, said he believes Mr. Paige is excited about the future role he will play in crafting legislation.
“Knowing Rod and how persuasive he is, his role is going to be substantial,” Mr. McAdams said. “I know how competent he is, how committed he is to improving education nationally, especially in urban schools.”
Gerald N. Tirozzi, a former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under Mr. Riley and now the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., also is upbeat about Mr. Paige.
“I’m totally optimistic that he’s the right man for the job at this time,” Mr. Tirozzi said. “He knows the issues. The whole political game in Washington is probably new to anyone.”
White House officials are hopeful as well about the secretary’s future. “His spirits seem strong,” said Mr. Kress, the presidential adviser. He called the secretary and the department’s other nominees a group with “real extraordinary talent.”
“He can do it,” added Mr. Guthrie, the Vanderbilt professor. “Whether he’s got the people around him who can help him do it, I don’t know.”
In Mr. Paige’s own view, he has found his footing and is determined to help shape policy, guide the nation’s schools toward improvement, and run an agency that is more proud, competent, and efficient. And he said he’s here to stay.
Asked how long that means, he said: “I really don’t know the answer to that, but I know I really want to stay at least through the first Bush term, and I’d like to at least start the second one. The reason for that is that the reauthorizations are set in five-year packages.
“So I want to take this five-year cycle, and the changes we didn’t get done here, into the next one, [so] we’ll get it done.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Paige Asserts He’ll Smooth Early Bumps