Paige Champions Education Law in Prime Time Convention Spot

By Michelle R. Davis & Sean Cavanagh — September 20, 2004 7 min read
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A prime time speaking spot by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige at the Republican National Convention highlighted an evening of speakers and videos that returned again and again to the theme of education reform.

In an Aug. 31 speech preceding those of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and first lady Laura Bush, the onetime Houston schools chief lauded the 2½-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s signature education initiative. Mr. Paige also argued for the need to stand by the law’s sweeping provisions aimed at reforming schools, despite attacks from critics.

“Although much work remains, our choice is simple,” the secretary said. “We can either build on these achievements or return to the days of excuses and indifference.”

Audio Extras

• Highlighting President Bush’s prime-time speech, the presence of silent protesters, as well as some celebrity sightings, staff writer Michelle Davis files her final report from the GOP convention. (3:28) Windows Media format | MP3 format

•Staff writer Michelle Davis reports on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s appearance at a public elementary school in Harlem, and the upcoming address Thursday evening by President Bush. (2:30) Windows Media format | MP3 format

• Staff writer Sean Cavanagh reports on the convention addresses by Education Secretary Rod Paige and first lady Laura Bush. (3:03) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Education Week staff writer Michelle Davis reports on the education chatter, or lack thereof, at the convention. (2:21) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Education Week staff writer Sean Cavanagh files a report on the weekend buildup to the convention. (3:01) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Mr. Paige’s speech came on the second night of the convention, dubbed “People of Compassion,” which followed an opening night focused on national security and combating terrorism. Tuesday evening included videos on tax breaks for couples adopting children, faith-based organizations’ help for the disadvantaged, and the importance of research-based methods of reading instruction. The secretary introduced a televised segment on an inner-city school in St. Louis at the end of his speech.

During his remarks, which began around 9:30 p.m., Mr. Paige sketched out the impetus for Mr. Bush’s commitment to the far-reaching No Child Left Behind law, which requires increased testing of students and sanctions for schools that don’t make academic progress. The law also requires schools to break down testing results by race and other characteristics in order to spot student populations that are struggling even in successful schools.

The secretary said Mr. Bush had a vision of “students challenged by high standards, teachers armed with proper resources, parents empowered with information and choices, and young adults with meaningful diplomas in their hands, not despair in their hearts.” Too often, Mr. Bush had seen “schools where young minds were left unengaged, good teachers left unsupported,” Mr. Paige said. “Kids who passed through these schools are robbed of their life’s potential.”

Mr. Paige, who is African-American, called the No Child Left Behind Act a “bipartisan law [that] raises the bar for all students no matter their race or income level.” He touched on the United States’ history of segregation and invoked the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned segregated systems of public education. It’s a theme he has returned to often during this year of the 50th anniversary of the decision. He strongly defended the law as being good for black children after members of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People loudly criticized the measure at the NAACP’s annual convention in July. (“Paige Blasts NAACP Leaders’ ‘Hateful’ Rhetoric on Bush,” July 28, 2004.)

In his convention speech lasting approximately six minutes, Mr. Paige noted that he was in college when the Supreme Court announced the Brown ruling in May of 1954. “While Brown opened the schoolhouse door to all, it did not guarantee quality of education for all,” he said. “President Bush saw this two-tiered system as unacceptable.”

Educator Reactions

“He gave a great speech,” said Texas delegate and teacher Geraldine Sam, who listened to the secretary from the floor of Madison Square Garden. “He’s sincere, and because he’s sincere, he gets his message across.” Ms. Sam is a member of the National Education Association.

Outside the convention, some teachers reached by phone were far less impressed.

“I don’t think he had much to say,” said Tracy Bricchi, a high school math teacher who watched from her home in Penacock, N.H. An undeclared voter and an NEA member, Ms. Bricchi said she favors President Bush’s opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. “I found it interesting that Arnold [spoke] for five times as long as he did,” said Ms. Bricchi, referring to the Hollywood actor-turned-governor, who barely mentioned school issues. “That kind of tells you what the Republican Party thinks about education, no matter what they say.”

Jackie Norris, a high school government teacher who is a registered Democrat, was not pleased to hear the education secretary refer to criticism of the law as “cynicism.” Ms. Norris is also an NEA member.

“I almost got the impression he was saying our expectations for students weren’t high enough,” said Ms. Norris, of Ames, Iowa. “He didn’t really have a good sense of what happens in the classroom, in terms of our needs.”

Secretary Paige had a few choice words for Democrats, especially those who helped craft the legislation. “Our opponents voted for No Child Left Behind,” he said. “Now, they try to attack it. They say No Child Left Behind should be watered down, schools can’t handle change, some children just can’t learn.”

“We say, ‘Do not underestimate our schools,’” Mr. Paige said. “‘Do not underestimate our teachers. And never underestimate our children.’”

Mr. Paige has at times proved to be a target for critics of the administration, in part because of his public comments. Earlier this year, he likened the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union—which has leveled steady criticism at the No Child Left Behind Act—to a terrorist organization, remarks that outraged many classroom instructors and prompted calls for his resignation. He later apologized. (“Furor Lingers Over Paige’s Union Remark,” March 3, 2004.)

But Jonathan K. Hage, the chief executive office of the Florida-based Charter Schools USA Inc., who also serves on an advisory team for the Bush campaign on education issues, said Mr. Paige’s past controversial remarks did nothing to weaken Republicans’ faith in his ability to carry the president’s message.

“Most teachers are not interested in the politics of education, but in the action of education, and that’s where he’s been strongest,” said Mr. Hage, who attended the convention.

Delegate and former Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Judy Catchpole, who watched from the floor of the convention hall Tuesday night, said that requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act that allow for students in failing schools to have school choice don’t work in her rural state.

But she praised the U.S. Department of Education for being flexible and working with her during her time in office, from 1995 to 2003, and said federal officals were able to instead provide struggling schools with additional resources, support, and technology.

“No Child Left Behind has been a wonderful thing for all kids,” Ms. Catchpole said. “It has helped educators to focus on all kids and find a way to serve all kids.”

Spotlight on Education

Mr. Paige received polite attention and applause, but it was Gov. Schwarzenegger who electrified the crowd with his speech mapping his rise from a young boy in Austria to American citizen and movie-action hero, and then governor.

But education was an overarching theme of the evening. The first topic that Mrs. Bush—a former public school teacher and librarian—touched on during her remarks was education, calling it “her passion.”

“When my husband took office, too many schools were leaving too many children behind, so he worked with Congress to pass sweeping education reform,” she said. “The No Child Left Behind Act provides historic levels of funding with an unprecedented commitment to higher standards, strong accountability, and proven methods of instruction.”

Mrs. Bush also sought to cast the administration’s concern for education in international terms. She described her thrill at the thought that Afghan girls—once barred from school—were now learning, following the U.S.-led defeat of the repressive Taliban government. “After being denied an education, even the chance to learn to read, the little girls in Afghanistan are now in school,” she said.

The first lady has played a prominent role in her husband’s campaign advertisements, including speaking in support of the No Child Left Behind Act. Several delegates here said they saw her as a persuasive backer of her husband’s policies.

“She’s a terrific role model, because she’s a teacher,” said delegate Karoline Bekeris, a teacher from Sitka, Alaska. “Hillary [Rodham Clinton] is a very divisive figure. Nobody hates Laura. Even my Democratic friends love her.”


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