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Paige pledges to 'leave no child behind'

Confirmation hearings for education designee commence in Senate

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rod Paige, President-elect George W. Bush's choice for secretary of education, told a Senate committee Wednesday that he would work to uphold the campaign pledges of the new president while addressing the concerns of congressional Democrats.

Rod Paige
Rod Paige  

Paige, in the first official congressional appearance of his confirmation process, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that he, like Bush, would work with "commitment and passion to ensure that no child is left behind," echoing perhaps the most oft repeated phrase of Bush's 2000 campaign.

But the former Houston school superintendent sought to play down a number of hot-button concerns for the panel's Democrats by providing his view that education block grants must find their way from the federal government directly to local school districts, and that vouchers -- while he supports them -- do not, in his estimation, supercede the need to improve the public education system.

"There is no entrenchment as far as ideology is concerned," Paige said in response to question about vouchers posed by temporary committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts.

Vouchers, Paige added, are "not a priority."

"I am a passionate promoter of public education," he said.

Paige was designated by Bush for the top slot at the Department of Education during the frenzy of transition activity that took place between Christmas and the New Year's holiday. He has since been the subject of ebullient fountains of praise on the part of Republicans and some of the most outspoken liberal Democrats, including Kennedy.

Edward Kennedy'
Sen. Edward Kennedy  

"Rod Paige comes to us highly recommended," Kennedy said Wednesday morning.

Paige was superintendent of the Houston Independent Public Schools System from 1994 through the end of this past year. He is credited with improving performance in the district -- the largest in Texas and the sixth-largest in the nation -- and making it one of the best-regarded urban school systems in the country.

Before taking the superintendent's job, Paige served on the school system's board and as dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University.

One of the Congress' most high-profile progressive Democrats, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, stepped forward Wednesday to introduce Paige to the Senate committee prior to his testimony.

Her appearance was significant. Jackson Lee is certain to be one of Bush's most critical congressional foes, and she has already, in the early days of the 107th Congress, voiced a number of objections to Bush's presidential victory following the Supreme Court's December 13 decision ending ballot recounts in Florida.

But her praise of Paige was effusive Wednesday. "I wish to tell you that he is a man committed to excellence, an educator who believes every child can learn and every child can succeed," Jackson Lee said.

"Dr. Paige knows diversity in our community," she continued. "Our children enjoy coming to school, they enjoy the classrooms... We feel safe when we send our children to school."

Sheila Jackson Lee
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee  

Humbled, Paige said in hushed tones that Jackson Lee "laid it on thick" before he launched his pitch to the committee.

"I have been fortunate to devote my entire professional life to education," Paige said. "I meant it from the bottom of my heart when I said no child should be left behind."

Paige's agenda mirrors the set of education priorities Bush laid out over 13 months on the campaign trail. He has called for a regimen to improve public schools that would include the creation of education standards for individual schools, and the drafting of series of tests to ensure that those standards being honored.

Failing schools would be given an amount of time to improve, but those that do not demonstrate significant change would find much of their federal funding canceled, to be converted to payouts -- possibly in the form of vouchers -- to parents, who would be given an opportunity to choose other schools for their children.

"I believe in parental choice," Paige said.

The standards and the tests, Paige insisted, would have to be drafted by states and local school districts, and failing schools would have great incentive to improve immediately -- perhaps long before even the threat of lost funding -- because the public would be informed of test results.

"Believe me, no one wants to face the public if that school is designated as a low performance school," he said. "The public becomes the enforcer."

While he espoused local control and accountability, Paige said he firmly believes the federal government's role in public education is essential. "The federal government must ensure equal access," he said, arguing that the achievement gap between well-to-do areas and poorer areas continues to widen.

"We are in the middle of an education recession," Paige said, making use of a phrase coined by Bush in the later phases of the presidential campaign.

Pushed by Kennedy on the issue of vouchers, Paige lamented that the word has taken on a negative tone, saying that parental choice in the face of failing schools is essential to rescue students in immediate need of better instruction, and to encourage those schools to change quickly.

He provided examples based on his own experience in Houston.

"I do believe in parental choice... but choice has many forms," he said.

Those could include magnet schools and charter schools which are both overseen by the school district in Houston, transfers to schools based on ethnic makeup, transfers to schools based on space availability, or transfers to private schools, also under the supervision of the Houston school district.

"I think we can talk about this, Paige told Kennedy. "I think we can find a way to make public schools work."

Questioned later in the hearing, Paige also addressed the subject of teacher pay and morale, an issue that was played upon heavily by Bush's Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, during the campaign.

Paige said he believed teachers are underpaid, but that wasn't their only problem.

"We need to look at other factors that affect teachers' jobs. Teachers should have more control over their classrooms... and not be afraid of violent students," he said. "We should relieve some their administrative burdens, so the time they are spending is time in their core field, such as science or math."


Wednesday, January 10, 2001



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