Scandals Aside, Pages Get an Education Like No Other

By Michelle R. Davis — October 17, 2006 6 min read
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When Matthew Sheppard was a high school junior, he arrived at school by 6:45 a.m each day and sometimes finished classes by 8 a.m. Then, the Jacksonville, Fla., native headed a few blocks to the U.S. Capitol and the floor of the House of Representatives, where he served as a page, sometimes squeezing in his homework between official duties.

Serving as a House page during the 2005-06 school year changed his life, Mr. Sheppard said in an interview last week. He learned about personal responsibility and time management and turned textbook lessons in U.S. government into firsthand experiences witnessing laws being made and politicians in action.

But the page program that Mr. Sheppard valued so much is under intense scrutiny as lawmakers grapple with the fallout from the revelations that former Rep. Mark Foley sent sexually charged e-mails to several teenage boys who had worked as House pages. Mr. Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned on Sept. 29, when he was confronted by ABC News with several graphic e-mails.

The scandal has brought renewed attention to the page program, with some observers calling for a temporary halt and others for the abolition of the program amid questions over how well officials in Congress have supervised it. But page alumni and others quickly stepped forward in defense of the program, and the suggestions to end it seem to have abated since early in the scandal.

“Just because a congressman messes up, doesn’t mean you shut down 200 years of history,” said Mr. Sheppard, now a high school senior back in Jacksonville. “You don’t shut down the institution. You hold the individual accountable.”

‘A Unique Opportunity’

Page Program at a Glance:

The page program began in 1829 in the Senate and 1842 in the House as an apprentice program with no academic classes.

Number of Pages and Length of Service
There can be up to 72 House pages at a time, who work for a semester, a full academic year, or a summer session, though the summer sessions do not have an academic component. There are no more than 30 Senate pages, whose terms run for only one semester. Senate summer sessions without academic classes are also offered.

Pay and Main Duties
House pages earn about $18,000 annually. Senate pages are paid about $20,000 a year. They serve as messengers and fulfill other support functions for members.

The House and Senate page schools are separate and are both accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, based in Philadelphia. Pages in both schools take four core academic classes and may also take elective classes, including a foreign language. Both schools also include a weekend Washington seminar class geared toward learning opportunities in the city.

SOURCES: Committee on House Administration; Education Week.

Both the House and Senate have independent page programs that date to the 1800s. Pages carry messages, distribute documents, staff the Republican and Democratic cloakrooms—the private lounges for members just off the floor in each chamber—and generally aid lawmakers with daily tasks.

The program began as more of a youth apprenticeship, without any academic component, said Salley M. Collins, the spokeswoman for the Committee on House Administration.

In the House Page School, students take, mathematics, English, social studies, and science, as well as electives such as a foreign language or yearbook. They attend school five days a week in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Students must be at least 16 to enter the program and have at least a 3.0 grade point average. There are 63 pages in the program this year.

The House pages live under a 10 p.m. curfew in a brown-brick dormitory near the Capitol.

The House page program also offers summer stints for pages, without the academic component, Ms. Collins said.

In the Senate, where classes start at 6:15 a.m. in the lower level of Webster Hall, the Senate page residence near the Capitol, students take four courses and then have the opportunity to study a foreign language with a tutor, based on the curricula of their schools back home, said Kathryn Weeden, the principal of the Senate Page School. There are no more than 30 students per semester in the Senate program, she said.

In both programs, classes can range from as short as 15 minutes to 50 minutes in length, as teachers and students work around the schedules for daily openings of the House and the Senate. Students often have several hours of homework to do, but they have time to fit much of it in during lulls in legislative proceedings, Ms. Weeden said. Sometimes students work late into the night during legislative sessions, though pages typically alternate such shifts, working every other night. This forces the page schools to get creative, she said.

“Flexibility is the key to success,” she said. Sometimes, for instance, school is canceled after a particularly late night in the Senate and may be rescheduled for a Saturday.

Despite the time constraints, the courses are rigorous, Ms. Weeden said.

“They interact closely with their instructors and develop great intellectual curiosity, because they’re able to speak daily with subject-matter experts who care very much about advancing their learning,” she said. “It’s a unique opportunity for 11th grade students to learn independence, how to manage their time, the value of teamwork, the importance of setting goals, and working to achieve them.”

In 2005, the College Board ranked the House Page School first in the nation among schools with fewer than 500 students for the percentage of students who got at least 3 points out of a possible 5 on Advanced Placement exams in U.S. history.

Both chambers’ page programs also offer tours of historically significant sites in Washington and discussions with the capital’s movers and shakers. In the House program, Ms. Collins said, students also take a Washington seminar course on Saturdays that introduces them to theaters, museums, and historical sites. Students take the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams, and many take multiple AP tests, she said.

House pages are paid about $18,000 a year, while Senate pages earn about $20,000 annually, Ms. Collins said, and are chosen through a competitive process that starts with an application through the student’s representative or senators, but the page classes are ultimately chosen by House and Senate leaders.

Limiting the Possibilities?

Still, some believe that the program is a relic of a bygone era and should be scrapped or reconsidered. Earlier this month, Rep. Ray H. LaHood, R-Ill., told CNN that the program should be temporarily suspended because some members of Congress have taken advantage of the teenage participants over the years.

“We should not subject young men and women to this kind of activity, this kind of vulnerability,” he said.

The House program has weathered a past scandal. In 1983, then-Reps. Dan Crane, R-Ill., and Gerry Studds, D-Mass., were censured by the House for having sexual relationships with 17-year-old pages, one female and one male, respectively.

Following that scandal, a special commission appointed to re-examine the page system found that the quality of classes, school equipment, and curriculum were lacking. Following that report, the first dormitory was built for pages, who previously often lived in city apartments, and the school-year page program was limited to students in their junior year.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who served as a House page in 1977-78, is leading the charge among alumni who are distressed that the Foley scandal has cast a cloud over the page program. He said he was “livid” at the suggestion the program should be shuttered.

“The page service tends to be a transformative experience. It certainly was for me,” he said. “The page service leaves many of its alumni with a sense of limitless possibilities in terms of themselves and the country.”

Mr. Turley’s chief suggestion is to put former pages in charge of the program’s oversight, through a board that could also include some members of Congress. Currently, the House’s program is overseen by the House Page Board, a six-member panel made up of three representatives and three officers of the chamber, while the Senate Page Board is made up of only two people—the sergeant-at-arms and the secretary of the Senate.

“The greatest protection for pages has always been former pages. They hold some of the highest positions in the country today,” Mr. Turley said, including 11 current House members and two senators. “More importantly, we’re not intimidated by members of Congress, and we would not hesitate to drop the hammer on any member that harmed a page or the page service.”

For his part, Mr. Sheppard, the page who spent last year in Washington, said he never felt threatened or witnessed any inappropriate behavior by politicians toward pages.

“A girl in my page class just e-mailed me and said, ‘Does anyone else feel rather haughty in their government class?’ ” he said. “You never forget what an awesome experience it is to be up there doing that.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Scandals Aside, Pages Get an Education Like No Other

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