On Jan. 20th, the Senate enthusiastically approved Rod Paige's appointment as Education Secretary. Paige goes into the job with enormous goodwill. The former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District will need it. President Bush's education plan, though still sketchy, has its critics on both the left and right. And public-school reform will be a leading topic of debate going into the 107th Congress as lawmakers, already looking to the 2002 mid-term elections, are keen on having an education package they can take to voters back home.
School vouchers -- which would allow parents to subsidize private-school tuition using federal dollars -- can't pass. Instead, Democrats and Republicans could O.K. a plan that would allow parents to choose which public school they send their children to. But there are other big issues to resolve. Many liberals and conservatives oppose standardized testing, a key component of Bush's plan to make schools more accountable. And, as usual, there will be a fight over money: how much to spend and how to spend it. On Jan. 29, Paige sat down with Business Week reporter Lorraine Woellert to talk about the political landscape. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: Business has long pushed for more accountability in education. What role will Corporate America play in getting a reform bill passed?
A: The business community is going to be of enormous support. [It] has a broad consensus around the core idea of getting results and knowing when you get those results by measuring.
Q: Yet business groups in Washington have been slow to endorse specific ideas on education, for example vouchers, testing, and how best to distribute federal dollars.
A: It might not be as coalesced as you and I would like it to be. And those three areas will have significant debate. The President has indicated, because he's a listener, that he's open-minded. But he ends most of his speeches by saying, "If you've got a better idea, I want to hear it."
Q: Many of the ideas included in the White House plan have already been tried at some level. What makes this time different?
A: The President's plan is essentially an accountability plan. It's based on the feeling that [for many years] a lot of good and caring people in the federal government have been addressing education issues through providing resources and establishing programs. But now we think it's time to ask the question, "What results are we getting?" In order to get the answer to that question, we have to measure.
Q: The voucher piece of the proposal in particular is under attack. If vouchers or another piece of the proposal falls out, does the entire accountability plan collapse?
A: There are a lot of contingencies all through the plan.... We don't want to communicate that there are things in this plan that we're wobbly on. We have firm convictions.... However, we understand that there are other ideas -- important ideas. We credit those other ideas [are] put forth [with] goodwill by people who simply think differently. One of the things that happened in Houston, which I'm pretty much an expert on, [is] that people with different ideas from different social strata can come together around key points.
Q: One of your strengths is your willingness to listen to all the stakeholders in the debate. But on education, the stakeholders cover the political spectrum probably more than on a lot of other issues. Schools are a subject that hits home with John Q. Public.
A: Everybody's an expert.
Q: Yes, but this is Washington. A lot of special interest groups will fight for their position to the bitter end.
A: There's no question about that. The question really is are they going to be players in developing appropriate change. The world is speeding into the future. The Internet is going to change things. The growth of home schooling is changing things. The information society, which [requires] a high level of literacy...is going to change things. So I think even organizations that hold fixed views about the status quo are in for change.
Q: What was your greatest achievement in Houston?
A: We increased public confidence in the concept of public education.
Q: How did you do that?
A: I'm uncomfortable with the "I." I was a part of a big team that included the school board and all the administrators. So I don't want to be perceived as [if] I rode in there on a white horse and waved a flag and everybody lined up. It didn't work like that.
Q: Is it a different ballgame at the federal level? Higher stakes? Tougher battles?
A: This isn't about politics. There appears to be a middle ground on...limiting parental choice to public schools. But testing could be a tougher battle.
Q: Where is the middle ground on testing [that] won't alienate the GOP's federalist wing or the Democrats' testing critics?
A: The rationale behind [testing] needs clarifying. A lot of people take this term and isolate it from teaching and evaluate it on its own. When you do that it takes on a whole different tone. We see testing as a part of the teaching process. A lot of things have to be aligned properly to make this thing work effectively.
First of all, some very carefully determined curriculum standards.... What a child should know and be able to do. Next would be specific objectives for each grade level. Then the question becomes how do you know whether it's being achieved or not. And the only answer...is testing. Testing absent this, I would agree with the naysayers on it. But we're talking about it as part of a complete package.
Q: What about state lawmakers who might not be opposed to testing per se, but might be worried about the cost?
A: That's an issue, and I don't know the answer to that right now.
Q: It seems like when you get down to this level of detail, the prospects for an education package look less bright.
A: A lot of people don't have a lot of faith in Washington, do they? I think that Washington is going to show the world something different that they've not seen before.