Paige’s Nomination Applauded By Unions, Conservatives Alike

By Darcia Harris Bowman & Joetta L. Sack — January 10, 2001 9 min read
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Houston schools Superintendent Rod Paige appears to have widespread support in Washington as President-elect Bush’s pick for secretary of education.

“I think it was a good choice,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the new chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “Why not put someone in there who has real, hands-on experience?”

“Nothing has indicated that there would be any problems [with Mr. Paige’s confirmation],” added Joe Karpinski, the spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which is expected to hold hearings on the nomination this week.

Roderick Raynor Paige

Position: Superintendent, Houston Independent School District, 1994 to present
Age: 67
Education: B.S., physical education, Jackson State University, 1955; M.A. and Ph.D., physical education, Indiana University, 1969.
Other experience: Houston school board member, 1989-1994 (board president in 1992); dean of school of education, Texas Southern University, 1984-1990; served in various other positions at Texas Southern, including assistant professor, athletic director, and head football coach, 1971-1984; head football coach, Jackson State University 1962-1969.
Recent Awards: the 2000 Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, given by the McGraw-Hill Cos. to high-ranking individuals who have improved education; named “outstanding superintendent of the year” in 2000 by the National Alliance of Black School Educators’ named “outstanding urban educator” in 1999 by the Council for the Great City Schools.
Personal: Divorced, one child.

While most Democrats had yet to comment publicly last week on Mr. Paige’s appointment, all signs point to a relatively smooth confirmation process. His selection by Mr. Bush on Dec. 29 was applauded by the national teachers’ unions and most other education groups, as well as by leading conservatives.

Most observers praised Mr. Paige’s record in turning around the nation’s seventh-largest school district, where he oversaw a dramatic increase in test scores, new accountability measures for principals, and the passage of a badly needed school construction bond.

In addition, advocates for school choice commended his willingness to provide parents with alternatives to regular public schools. Under Mr. Paige’s leadership, the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District opened 20 charter schools and created a modest voucher-style program.

“His support for school choice not only helped the students, but helped the overall public school system,” said Ken Connor, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Washington-based group.

Union officials, meanwhile, focused on the 67-year-old administrator’s firsthand experience in urban schools.

“What we know of him has for the most part been positive,” National Education Association President Bob Chase said. “He’s demonstrated he is committed to quality public education and quality urban education. If there’s any concern, it’s his support for some forms of vouchers ... but he was at the top of the list of people being considered as far as we’re concerned.”

Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, also reacted positively. “His experience in urban education will be helpful in keeping the nation’s schools on the path to reform,” she said.

Both national unions had worked energetically in support of Mr. Bush’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore.

Local union leaders in Houston commented favorably on Mr. Paige as well. “I think he’ll do an excellent job,” said Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who formed a cordial working relationship with the superintendent after a tense period early in his tenure. “I’m quite sure Bush selected him because he knows the Texas accountability system and he’s done well under it.”

Indeed, Mr. Bush—echoing his own “reformer with results” campaign slogan— described Mr. Paige at a Dec. 29 news conference as “a reformer and someone with a record of results.”

“He’s someone who knows it’s important to set the highest of standards and not accept any excuse for failure,” the former Texas governor added. “He believes, as I do, that accountability is a true friend of reform.”

Record of Progress

If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Paige would be the first African-American to serve as U.S. secretary of education. He would also be the first to have managed a big-city district.

With his seven years at the helm of the Houston schools—nearly three times the average tenure for an urban superintendent—Mr. Paige has brought an enviable level of stability to the once-troubled district.(“Observers Ponder Identity of Next Education Secretary,” Oct. 4, 2000.)

The early days of his tenure following his 1994 appointment were marked by tensions with Houston’s Hispanic community, which had felt excluded from the selection process for his job; divisions over labor-management issues; the 1996 defeat of a school construction bond; and a critical state audit of the district’s financial management.

Under Mr. Paige’s stewardship, however, the district made a major commitment to ensuring English literacy for all students, with a strong emphasis on phonics-based instruction; linked principals’ job contracts to student performance; and improved management by contracting with private businesses for many nonacademic services.

Next in Line
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Rod Paige will be the seventh U.S. secretary of education. Here are the six people who have held the post so far.
Tenure in Office
Shirley M. Hustedler Dec. 6, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981 Carter
Terrel H. Bell Jan. 23, 1981-Dec. 31, 1984 Reagan
William J. Bennett Feb. 6, 1985-Sept. 20, 1988 Reagan
Lauro F. Cavazos Sept. 20, 1988-Dec.15, 1990 Reagan, Bush
Lamar Alexander March 18, 1991-Jan. 2, 1993 Bush
Richard Riley Jan. 21, 1993-present Clinton
Source: U.S. Department of Education

Between 1994 and 1999, the proportion of Houston’s students passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills rose from 49 percent to 74 percent, at the same time that the percentage of low-income students was increasing from 58 percent to 71 percent. The scores for minority students rose at even greater rates, and Mr. Paige’s initiatives appeared to bolster public support for the school district, which saw a $678 million school construction bond pass with 73 percent of the vote in 1998.

“If expectations are set high, and if educators and parents work hard together, every child can thrive,” Mr. Paige said at the announcement of his selection in Washington. “The bottom line is this: When we set high standards for our schools and our children, and when we give our schools and our children the support they need and hold them accountable for results, public education can get the job done.”

But Mr. Paige, who has declined to be interviewed since his selection, has come under fire in some circles for Houston’s pioneering plan to tie administrators’ job performance to student test scores on the Texas assessment.

Linda McNeil, a professor of education at Rice University in Houston who has studied the district extensively, said the district’s test scores have risen because students are drilled on the contents of the test, rather than being taught a meaningful curriculum. Meanwhile, pervasive problems, such as low teacher morale, inadequate facilities, and a high dropout rate are being ignored, she said.

“There’s such a gap between the appearance of quality and the actual, persistent problems,” argued Ms. McNeil, who is a co-director of Rice University’s Center for Education. “As you look at the test scores, you need to look at how they’re being produced.”

Others, however, praised Mr. Paige’s record in Houston.

“President-elect Bush made a wise decision,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council for the Great City Schools, an organization of large urban districts. “He has always been somebody who not only knows the intricacies of how schools work, but is singular in his focus—to improve schools, particularly urban schools.”

The executive director of another prominent education group commented that Mr. Paige also understands the importance of the federal role in improving schools.

“Secretaries of education have come from a wide variety of backgrounds,” Gordon M. Ambach of the Council of Chief State School Officers said. “The important qualification is their commitment to strengthening education through federal investment, and I believe he comes with that commitment.”

Mr. Paige recently supported efforts to create a federal school construction program, a top priority for congressional Democrats and some Republicans. In October, he wrote a letter with eight other superintendents to the House Ways and Means Committee urging passage of a bipartisan bill that would have helped some districts pay interest on school construction bonds. The measure ultimately failed.

“He was a pretty strong supporter, and very active, too,” noted Dan Maffei, a spokesman for Democrats on the committee.

Bush Family Friend

In addition to his work in the Houston district, where he served on the school board before becoming superintendent, Mr. Paige was the dean of Texas Southern University’s school of education for six years.

“Rod has had experience at every level of education,” Mr. Bush said at the Dec. 29 news conference. “He’s been a college dean, he was elected as a school board member, and he is serving as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. I know him well.”

Mr. Paige’s ties to the president-elect can be traced to his days at Texas Southern University, where he was the head football coach before becoming the dean of the education school and served on the board of an organization of professional athletes who mentored children. Mr. Bush’s family was also involved in the group and got to know Mr. Paige. On at least one occasion, Mr. Bush hosted Mr. Paige at his home for dinner.

After meeting the Bushes, Mr. Paige went to work as a local campaign director for the senior George Bush’s failed 1980 presidential bid. He changed his political affiliation and later served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention.

“I was a Kennedy Democrat,” he told Education Week in an interview last summer. But after attending the GOP convention in 1988, he never went back to his original party.

He added: “I’ve always had tremendous respect for the Bush family. They are the quintessential family. I can’t imagine people being better human beings.”

Mr. Paige is currently the highest paid superintendent in the nation, with an annual salary of $275,000. But if he’s confirmed as secretary, he’ll have to take a pay cut: Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley received $157,000 last year.

Associate Editor Robert C. Johnston contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Paige’s Nomination Applauded By Unions, Conservatives Alike

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