School Reform: Rethinking America's Lesson Plan

Can Education Secretary Paige forge a consensus on the nation's schools?

When Rod Paige was appointed superintendent of Houston's schools in 1994, the city's Hispanic community reacted as if it had been punched in the stomach. Outraged Hispanics, whose children make up more than half of the city's school population, accused whites on the board of cutting a backroom deal with blacks to appoint Paige without their input. Hispanics subsequently forced a change in the board's selection process, but the episode left Paige starting his new job in an atmosphere even more poisoned than it had been before.

Today, even Paige's most mistrusting antagonists have largely been won over by his adept political skills. In the past seven years, he has set up a limited, voucherlike program that placated opponents by excluding religious schools. He got the business community on board for a school-bond referendum that passed handily in 1998. And he pushed through a testing system used to evaluate individual students as well as entire schools and districts.

Houston's school board remains polarized: Hispanics were angered yet again last fall, when the board replaced a Hispanic member with a candidate they opposed. But Paige himself still gets credit as a listener with a consensus management style. "He doesn't force anything on us but keeps working on it until he gets our support," says Esther Campos, who joined Houston's school board as a representative from the largely Mexican-American community shortly after Paige took over. Adds Paige: "We increased public confidence."

He starts his new job as President George W. Bush's Education Secretary under far less acrimonious circumstances. His appointment sailed through the Senate on a voice vote. And he won endorsements from liberal groups, such as the National Education Assn., all the way to conservative activists, including the Christian Coalition. Still, the former football coach, who served as the dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University from 1984 to 1994, may need a while to feel comfortable in the thicket of national debate. During a week of trooping in front of the cameras, Paige appeared uneasy in the spotlight and struggled to spit out prepped sound bites.

One trait of Paige's may prove invaluable when it comes to juggling all the egos in town: his reputation for generously assigning credit to others. In an interview in his still bare office, Paige interrupts a question about his Houston successes to say: "I'm uncomfortable with the `I.' It was a big team effort. 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."

GOP INFIGHTING. The 67-year-old Mississippi native will need all the political acumen he can muster. Bush chose education as his first major policy push in part because it's an issue on which much common ground can be found among warring Democrats and Republicans. But there's still plenty of sharp ideological disagreement (table). "There is a reasonably strong consensus on much of what is being proposed, but you can get knocked off track on a few hot issues," warns Edward B. Rust Jr., CEO of State Farm Insurance Cos. and head of The Business Roundtable's education task force. Paige seems undaunted: "I believe the areas of [agreement] are stronger than the areas of disagreement."

His first task will be to forge unity on the Republican side of the schoolhouse. The GOP revolutionaries who swept to power with Newt Gingrich in 1994 wanted to fix America's schools by abolishing the Education Dept. In his campaign, Bush pushed hard to morph the GOP into the party of literacy and tougher standards. Yet plenty of conservatives haven't abandoned their former attitudes, and many don't agree with the entire Bush agenda.

Standardized testing is one subject that divides the right as much as the left. All 50 states administer some standardized tests, but only 16 test every year in grades 3 through 8, as required under Bush's plan. Conservatives warn that this would lead to a de facto national curriculum. "Conservatives are opposed to anything with the word `national' in it, and liberals are opposed to anything with the word `testing' in it," says ex-Education Secretary William Bennett.

Surprisingly, vouchers may prove less incendiary than expected. Teachers' unions and liberal groups dislike the idea of giving public funds to private schools. And on Jan. 27, Bush indicated in a radio address that he may not pursue the issue. Further, some conservatives privately admit that they may have already lost that battle. "Supporters of Bush are going to be forgiving on a lot of things because they're so happy it's not a Gore Administration," says Darcy Olsen, education director at Cato Institute, a libertarian group in Washington.

Paige's experience in Houston could help forge a compromise on vouchers. In 1996, under his leadership, the school board instituted a limited program to allow private schools to use public funds. The motivation was mostly pragmatic: The public schools simply couldn't accommodate all of the city's children. But to defuse a potential outcry from antivoucher groups, which saw the plan as a way to put public money into the Religious Right's hands, Paige agreed to exclude religious schools. The city also required private schools to certify their teachers and administrators with the same tests as public ones. Today, there's little fighting about the program.

When it comes to spending, Paige will need to be creative. Bush's proposal would add some $50 billion to federal school outlays over five years. But Democrats will challenge his plan to give states more flexibility in spending the funds. An alternative plan put forth by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and other moderate Dems would punish failing schools by withholding federal money. But critics don't buy it. "The government would never cut off the federal dollars to a state," scoffs Susan Muskett, legislative-affairs director for the Christian Coalition.

The White House hopes to get a comprehensive bill passed this spring. That's a stretch given all the hurdles. But Paige thinks the various interest groups will get on board. "Organizations [that] hold fixed views about the status quo are in for change," he says. His persuasion worked in Houston. Now, the new education czar must make the same lesson plan work in a much larger classroom.

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