Bush’s Education Secretary Visits Silicon Valley

As printed online by the San Jose Mercury News, 03/01/2001

New Education Secretary Roderick Paige carried President Bush’s schools plan to Silicon Valley on Wednesday, telling a Santa Clara audience of business and high-tech leaders the administration is steadfastly committed to some controversial goals.

Among them: high standards for all students, and an expanding role for private business — including private schools — in public education.

Paige called public education an “already-dead monopoly,” which inevitably will be “open to competition whether it likes it or not.”

The former head of Houston schools, Paige gave his first public address as education secretary to a receptive audience at the Silicon Valley Education Summit at the Westin Hotel.

The meeting, to address the private sector’s role in improving education, was sponsored by the Pacific Research Institute of San Francisco.

Public schools already face growing competition on the Internet, Paige said. He cited enterprises such as former education secretary William Bennett’s K12, a company that bills itself as an online school.

Bennett, who also appeared at the gathering, has been a longtime critic of high-tech’s role in education. He said in an interview Tuesday he still believes the computer and calculator have been “a net minus” for U.S. students.

But he defended the idea of an online school that provides a consistent curriculum at every grade level, when it is put in the right hands. Computers can “leverage the qualities of a great teacher,” he said.

While welcoming private enterprises in public education, the new administration has made a point of proclaiming its dedication to schools. In Bush’s address to Congress on Tuesday night, he stressed that education would be among his top priorities. The president has “put his money where his mouth is,” Paige told the audience, by pushing an 11 percent increase in federal schools spending.

In an interview after the talk, Paige conceded the federal government’s role in financing schools — only about 7 percent of the total cost, he said — limits its leverage. But he added there’s still a big role to play, and cited his visit earlier in the day to Belle Air Elementary School in San Bruno.

Belle Air students, many of whom are poor and qualify for extra federal help, scored a big improvement in state testing this year. Federal funding for tutoring and other programs “levels the playing field” for those students, Paige said.