Paige Hits the Ground Running In New Post

By Joetta L. Sack — January 31, 2001 3 min read
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A few days before President Bush’s inauguration, Rod Paige probably could have passed unnoticed in the nation’s capital as just another Texan in cowboy boots.

A few days afterward, it was hard to turn on the TV news without seeing his face.

The new secretary of education’s first week on the job was a whirlwind. President Bush declared Jan. 22-26 to be “Education Week” and spent each day promoting his “No Child Left Behind” education package, his first major policy initiative; often, Mr. Paige stood by his side.

By the end of the week, the former Houston schools superintendent had given interviews to nearly every national television network, from CNN to Black Entertainment Television.

“With education being the first item on the [president’s] agenda, he has had a very busy start,” said Lindsey Kozberg, the acting spokeswoman for Mr. Paige. She added: “He is getting settled in.”

Secretary Paige did manage to squeeze in a few visits with the agency’s staff, she reported.

Even before the presidential inauguration and Mr. Paige’s confirmation on Jan. 20, educators and school groups welcomed him to Washington with receptions and parties.

On Jan. 18, the Council of the Great City Schools hosted a reception for top representatives from education groups to meet Mr. Paige, the first African-American to head the federal Department of Education.

On the evening of Inauguration Day, the secretary and other education and political leaders attended a Washington dinner in Mr. Paige’s honor hosted by Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad. Mr. Broad, well-known as a Democratic fund-raiser, started a foundation in 1999 to finance programs to improve education.

In addition, President Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney held a swearing-in ceremony at the Department of Education on Jan. 24 to officially mark the beginning of Mr. Paige’s tenure. It was the first public swearing-in that they had conducted, although they had held private events for other Cabinet officers.

Mr. Cheney, who led the 15-minute ceremony, reiterated Mr. Bush’s pledge of support for a strong federal role in education.

“It was our wish to be here as a sign of support” for the department, Mr. Cheney said. “You can judge a president’s commitment to an issue by the caliber of the people he appoints. Seeing the caliber of Dr. Paige, you know the issue is close to President Bush’s heart.”

That ceremony, which Ms. Kozberg said marked the first time a president and vice president had ever made a joint appearance at the department’s headquarters, was attended by about 150 people, including members of Congress, representatives from education groups, and Mr. Paige’s siblings and son.

Afterward, President Bush and Vice President Cheney toured the agency’s computer-training laboratory.

During his brief visit there, Mr. Bush said he wanted to personally thank the employees for their work. “I can’t think of a more important mission than making sure every child is educated,” he said.

Mr. Paige vowed to “make education reform the law of the land.”

“When each and every child in this country has received a quality education, we will have made history,” the secretary said.

He received a warm welcome from the members of Congress who attended the ceremony. Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., R-Okla., who said a prayer at the swearing-in, ribbed Mr. Paige about his background and his choice of footwear.

“As I was reading his biography, I noticed there were two things I liked about him,” Mr. Watts said. “He’s an old football coach, and he wears boots every day.”

Identity Crisis

Among other transition action, the Senate last week confirmed Tommy G. Thompson, the outgoing governor of Wisconsin, to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start and other family programs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee delayed action on Mr. Bush’s controversial appointment of former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri as attorney general.

Meanwhile, Education Department officials were tight-lipped last week on the process of choosing the agency’s other political appointees, including the jobs of deputy secretary and the assistant secretaries. Ms. Kozberg said that for the foreseeable future, the agency would have no comment on any names rumored to be under consideration or when the selections would be announced.

Meanwhile, the agency’s press officials also were getting to know their new leader. Until late last week, they weren’t sure whether to refer to Mr. Paige on official press releases by his nickname, Rod, or by his full name and middle initial, Roderick R. Their first press advisory, issued Jan. 24, used both references as a compromise.

But last Friday, a decision was made: Call him Rod.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as Paige Hits the Ground Running In New Post


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