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Speedy Confirmation Expected for Paige

By Erik W. Robelen — January 17, 2001 6 min read
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Houston schools Superintendent Rod Paige, President-elect Bush’s pick for education secretary, is on track to be confirmed by the Senate on Inauguration Day, a leading Senate Democrat said last week at the conclusion of a cordial hearing on the choice.

The Senate is expected to vote Jan. 20 on a handful of Cabinet members, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who is temporarily serving as the chairman of the Senate education committee in place of Sen. James M. Jeffords, R- Vt. “Senator Jeffords and I will make sure that your name is included at that time for approval,” Mr. Kennedy told the secretary-designate.

Mr. Paige received a warm welcome from committee members of both parties during the Jan. 10 hearing. Still, questioning from Democrats made clear that certain aspects of the schools agenda he will now be asked to promote—especially vouchers and efforts to provide greater flexibility in spending federal dollars—will face opposition.

“If we concern ourselves with vouchers and block grants, we will generate a lot of heat but little illumination,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D- R.I.

In response to a question on vouchers, Mr. Paige said they were “not a priority.” He added, “I am a passionate promoter of public education.”

Mr. Paige then noted, however, that he doesn’t like to use the term “voucher,” which he argues has unfairly acquired a negative connotation.

“I do believe in parental choice, and I think parental choice is a necessary condition of effective public education,” he said, noting that private schooling is just one of many such options. “I think there is room for us to talk about this.”

Mr. Paige also expressed his support for a proposal from President-elect Bush’s 2000 campaign that would allow students in persistently poor-performing schools to use a portion of the schools’ federal Title I aid, combined with state money, to help pay for tutoring or to attend another school, whether public or private, including religious schools.

The secretary-designate himself has some experience with a voucher-style program.

In Houston, he instituted a policy by which students whose neighborhood public schools are overcrowded may attend secular private schools at the district’s expense. It also allows failing students in low-performing schools the option of transferring to private institutions. (“Voucher- Style Program Offers Clues to Paige’s Outlook,” Jan. 10, 2001.)

A ‘Record of Success’

Democrats and Republicans alike offered accolades for Mr. Bush’s choice of Mr. Paige.

"[Mr. Paige’s] breadth of experience and record of success at all levels of education leaves him well- equipped to assume the duties of secretary of education,” said Sen. Jeffords, who will resume the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Jan. 20, when Republicans regain control of the evenly divided Senate after Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney becomes its presiding officer.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., told Mr. Paige: “There’s no question in my mind as to your qualifications.”

Many observers credit Mr. Paige, who has been Houston’s superintendent since 1994, with helping to turn around the nation’s seventh-largest school district, where he has overseen a dramatic increase in test scores, new accountability measures for principals, and the passage of a $678 million school construction bond. (“Paige’s Nomination Applauded by Unions, Conservatives Alike,” Jan. 10, 2001.)

In his opening remarks, Mr. Paige discussed his experiences in Texas, where the state’s education efforts have focused on setting clear standards and measuring student performance to see if the standards are met. He noted that the state issues annual report cards for all schools.

“There are complaints that it just isn’t fair to rate schools and to expect teachers and children to meet goals for performance,” he said. “I disagree. America cannot go speeding into the future looking through a rearview mirror.”

He also reiterated some of the core agenda items of the incoming Bush administration, including imposing new accountability demands on states and schools, providing more local control of federal funds, increasing parental choice, raising child literacy rates, improving school safety, and closing the achievement gap between students of different family backgrounds.

When asked about federal spending on education, Mr. Paige said, “I think you can expect some requests for increased funding in selected areas,” but he said that such spending hikes would be coupled with increased accountability demands.

During the campaign, Mr. Bush proposed spending an additional $47 billion on education over five years.

Sen. Wellstone homed in on the issue of high-stakes testing, which he said the federal government should not require.

“I do agree that one test offers very little information,” Mr. Paige told the senator. “You need multiple tests.” But he added, “I’m concerned about the negative tone that tests have generated.”

During the campaign, Mr. Bush called for a requirement that all students in Title I schools take state-developed tests every year in grades 3- 8. Mr. Paige said such testing was needed “to determine if we’re being effective. ... My basic principle is to ask those who benefit from federal funds [to show results].” But, he added, “there is room for discussion about what results means.”

Block Grants

Sen. Kennedy said he was pleased with much of the agenda Mr. Paige outlined. But aside from opposing vouchers, he was also concerned that if education programs were consolidated into block grants, money might not reach the neediest children and instead get sidetracked into other areas.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Bush proposed consolidating most of the existing federal K-12 programs into five flexible categories in exchange for new accountability demands. A state could have even broader flexibility if it promised to meet still-higher performance standards.

When he asked Mr. Paige for his thoughts on targeted federal spending, advanced by President Clinton, for class-size reduction, after-school initiatives, and Gear Up—which helps low-income students prepare for college— the secretary-designate replied, “I think those programs have been of enormous assistance in Houston.” He said his emphasis would be on “getting the maximum amount of dollars to where the rubber hits the road.”

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., questioned the wisdom of Mr. Bush’s proposal to shift the Head Start preschool program to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I appreciate the educational aspect of Head Start, but Head Start does so many other things,” Mr. Dodd said.

Mr. Paige sought to assuage some of the senator’s concerns. “I do not feel that the broad range of services provided by Head Start should be discontinued,” he said. “But early education, especially reading, should become the centerpiece.”

Democrats also probed Mr. Paige on the issue of school construction. He testified in 1999 before the House Ways and Means Committee in favor of an ambitious school construction package favored by most Democrats and some moderate Republicans—but opposed by the GOP leadership—that would have subsidized about $25 billion in school construction bonds. Last fall, he signed a letter along with eight other superintendents reiterating his support.

Mr. Paige explained last week that the program would have provided significant assistance to Houston, which had had difficulty getting state aid for school construction, though he said that more recently the district has received some state help.

While Mr. Paige had ample opportunity at the hearing to reaffirm his support for the bipartisan plan, he simply said: “There are a lot of innovative ways” to address school construction.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Speedy Confirmation Expected for Paige

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