Politics & Policy

Three Cheers For Rod Paige

Bidding a great reformer and committed public servant farewell.

Outgoing education secretary Rod Paige is a great education reformer and distinguished public servant who leaves office after four years of accomplishment, candor, nonstop dedication to America’s children, and loyal service to the Bush administration.

With Cabinet members exiting in droves, it’s hard to know for sure who’s being nudged out the door and who is leaving of his own volition. Paige had signaled that he was willing to stick around a while longer, but the White House reportedly wanted a four-year commitment–a lot to ask of a 71-year-old. So as he packs to return to Texas, let us dwell not on the circumstances of Paige’s departure, but on his achievements, his legacy, and his character. “We all serve at the pleasure of the president,” he told his staff, “and it is perfectly appropriate that I leave now.”

Rod Paige wasn’t perfect in his role as secretary of Education. He is not, for example, a great public speaker when working off a prepared text. (He is wonderfully eloquent, sometimes thrilling, when he speaks from the heart.) He tends to voice the truth as he sees it, even when it upsets folks. One can scarcely forget his apt–if politically incorrect–comparison of the NEA to a “terrorist organization,” or his terrific Wall Street Journal critique of the NAACP leadership.

What he was, however–what he is–is a dedicated educator of children, and a crusader for better opportunities for the poorest and neediest among them. A black man who rose from the humblest start in Jim Crow’s Mississippi–a product of segregated schools–he became a teacher, coach, administrator, counselor, dean, school-board member, and, in time, the reforming superintendent of the largest school system in Texas.

He left that post to travel to Washington at Bush’s behest, and there he led the Education Department for four eventful years. He didn’t always have the leeway he should have had to lead it to the best of his ability. The White House tether was shorter than in previous administrations–far shorter than when I worked there with Bill Bennett in the late 1980s. Paige had limited authority to pick his team, and even less to pick his policy targets.

He is, for example, a stalwart believer in the power of school choice, both to create opportunities for children and to put transformative pressure on “the system.” But–with the exceptions of the new D.C. voucher project and the valiant efforts of the department’s small “innovation and improvement” office–this has not been a choice-minded administration. Indeed, the person named yesterday to be Paige’s successor, White House policy maestra Margaret Spellings, is a standards-testing accountability booster who can be counted on to defend and extend the No Child Left Behind Act. But she has, unfortunately, also signaled that the only way to fix American K-12 education is to lean on “the system” from above, not to empower its clients. A smart woman, Bush loyalist, and skilled staffer, perhaps Spellings will demonstrate in her highly visible new role that she has more than one policy gun in her arsenal–along with personal attributes that will cause people to want to follow where she leads. We wish her well.

Back to Paige. A short tether, yes, but he made the most of his position. He tirelessly barnstormed the country, talking of the need to boost achievement and to truly leave no child behind. He implemented NCLB with conviction and steadfastness, occasionally nudging it toward a bit more flexibility and reasonableness. That epochal statute is now, in Paige’s words, “indelibly launched. A culture of accountability is gripping the American educational landscape.”

The secretary also did his best, despite yawns at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to revamp teacher training and certification; to reform the special-ed program (which showed some results yesterday when the congressional conference committee finished work on it); and to make overdue changes in higher ed and vocational ed. He invested the Education Department’s skimpy discretionary dollars in boldly reformist initiatives, such as the American Board for Certification of Teaching Excellence. He oversaw a wholesale revamp of the department’s research and evaluation functions, including wider use of experimental designs (even control groups!) in most federal studies.

Though scarcely noted by the press, Paige also shaped up the Education Department’s tattered management and accounting systems. (He was helped in this venture by such able colleagues as Bill Hansen, Gene Hickok, and John Danielson.) The agency is, for example, getting its third consecutive “clean audit,” which may not sound like much but is a lot better than the alternative–and tons better than what Paige inherited from the Clinton team.

Some of his other accomplishments will bear fruit after his departure, such as rigorous appraisals of curricula and instructional programs by the new “What Works Clearinghouse,” regulations that open the door for single-sex schools, and Washington’s most successful outreach effort to community- and faith-based organizations.

Along the way, Rod Paige showed himself to be a good boss, an effective leader, a friend to many, and a thoroughly decent human being. But he never let the grown-ups get in the kids’ way. He is an educator of children, not a panderer to adult interests.

And time and again he used his bully pulpit to address the moral imperative of gap-closing and to frame civil rights correctly for the 21st century. Read, for example, his superb Harvard address on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. In fact, while you’re at it, read a whole selection of Paige’s speeches and statements. This isn’t just the oeuvre of a dutiful federal official: It’s the work of a dedicated educator, a serious reformer, a rigorous thinker, and a courageous man.

I’m going to miss Rod Paige. So will America’s children.

A senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Chester E. Finn Jr. served as assistant secretary of education for research and improvement, and counselor to the secretary, from 1985 to 1988.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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