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As printed in The Washington Times, August 7, 2001
Stories continue to circulate that President Bush negotiated the details of the major education plan without the input of his own secretary of education, Rod Paige. For a short time, there were even rumors that Mr. Paige intended to resign to protest his marginal role in the process. As it turns out, the latter was idle gossip, the former hyperbole.
Mr. Paige is an important part of the administration's education team, as he should be. Indeed, Mr. Bush would do well to dramatically bolster Mr. Paige's profile and influence. In his first six months in office, the secretary has visited 20 elementary, middle and high schools and four college campuses in 20 states. During his travels, he has shown the same leadership that helped him improve the Houston public schools from some of the worst in Texas to some of the the best during the 1990s. Rod Paige speaks directly to the question facing the education establishment: how to provide every child in this country with a world-class education.
Mr. Paige understands the truth about the state of American education - and he has the courage to say so even in the den of lions. In a recent speech to delegates from the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's most powerful and liberal teachers union, Mr. Paige detailed the crisis in American education. He reminded his audience that nearly 70 percent of urban and rural fourth graders cannot read at a basic level, that blacks' scores on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress were only 86 percent of whites' scores and that neither of these statistics had shown improvement over the last eight years.
The leadership of the NEA may have smiled briefly as Mr. Paige reminded them of the president's promise to boost funding at the Department of Education. The look on their faces surely changed, however, when Mr. Paige concluded: "Looking at the past 35 years, who could argue that money is sufficient on its own to produce better schools? Just as reform needs money, money needs real reform." To improve education, he continued, schools and states must implement rigorous standards, improve teaching methods, and hold "every part of the system accountable for those results."
Mr. Paige has also continued to fight for true school choice and an end to the public school monopoly. That our secretary of education argues so clearly and unabashedly for choice and private-school competition is a remarkable development in American education. Before the NAACP, well-known for its opposition to education reform, Mr. Paige asked, "Do you want a government that flatters you, but traps our children in failing schools? Or do you want a government that is candid, but ensures that your children will get a good education?"
His message to the NEA was no less clear: "Competition is here to stay, and it is growing. If we don't bring real reform to public schools, more families will leave the system in droves ... Burying our heads in the sand and pretending that private schools, charter schools, home schools, and the Internet are not significant would just harm the public schools we serve."
People listen to Rod Paige because he knows his subject matter well, and because he roots his arguments in the real-world experience he brings to the job.
Although the education plans passed by Congress include no real school choice provision, Mr. Paige should nevertheless continue to voice his support for choice. This is a moral and civil rights issue, and no one knows that better than our current secretary of education. "In Houston," Mr. Paige recently told Education Week, "I had a policy of not tying kids to failing schools. Students could, if they were failing in a failing school, opt to go somewhere else, even a private school ... Now for people who say that hurts public schools, look at Houston." Indeed, school choice works in Houston, it works in other places and it can work all across America - if we let it.
Whatever has transpired in the past, the White House should listen to, and learn from, Rod Paige. He can help Mr. Bush promote education reform that includes high standards, strict accountability, and genuine school choice. George W. Bush should continue to make education his number one priority - and he should make Rod Paige his No. 1 one adviser on the issue.
William J. Bennett is a former secretary of education.