Skip to content

A Progress Report

Paige Assesses the Bush Administration’s Accomplishments in Education

A career educator, Education Secretary Rod Paige has guided his department through some sweeping changes since taking office in early 2001. And while the department has given its share of attention to higher education, its principal focus has been on reforming education at its most basic level.

The No Child Left Behind Act aimed to do just that. Signed into law on Jan. 8, 2002, the act has been the cornerstone of President Bush’s ambitious education reform — and a lightning rod for criticism, as well.

With education, including the NCLB Act, coming up as a key issue in this fall’s presidential election, Roll Call Executive Editor Morton Kondracke sat down with Paige, formerly superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, to discuss the progress of the administration’s reforms, including No Child Left Behind, as well as his take on Sen. John Kerry’s proposals for education.

MORTON M. KONDRACKE, ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Senator [John] Kerry [D-Mass.] said the other day that “thousands of schools are falling short of No Child Left Behind’s target because the president has fallen $27 billion short of his own promises to fund the initiative. If [President] Bush was getting graded for his implementation of NCLB he’d get an F.” How do you respond to that?

ROD PAIGE, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Political hogwash. Straight up, political hogwash. It has no connection with reality or the truth. Several areas here. The first one has to do with the idea that the authorization level constitutes a promise, and that the difference between the appropriations level and the authorization is a shortfall. I went back through a lot of legislation to learn all about that, and what I found is that it is more routine than the exception. I think, in fact, it may be a political tactic sometimes to set an authorization level out of reach, knowing that the appropriators are going to deal with it from a more realistic point of view.

The second issue is that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been on the books since 1965 with Lyndon Johnson. It contains some reasonably good ideas in each one of its reauthorizations. I especially have respect for what happened in 1994, with the Clinton administration’s Improve America’s School Act, because, as far as I can determine, that is the first time that accountability got embedded into federal law. … But after $170 billion had been spent on Title I and similar things, what happened? There was never any implementation. Every time that what the law required bumped up against the reality of school and introduced the slightest bit of pain and difficulty it was, “let’s put this off ‘til later, let’s re-look at this … yadda yadda.” So, for the first time, with NCLB, the implementation has been authentic. That’s not to say that the implementation is easier; that’s to say that implementation is taking effect and there are some growing pains. …

KONDRACKE: What are the principal growing pains?

PAIGE: The use of data to make decisions. The disaggregating of data and looking at subgroups rather than by averages. Supplemental services. Public school choice. AYP — Adequate Yearly Progress. Making visible progress on deficits. All these things are different ways of doing business and we’re growing into it. But the time is up. Any change as massive as this change is concerned, … as complex as this, with fairness of the implementation has taken place. There are areas … for improvement, especially dealing with capacity in some of our big cities, with the transfer issue. …

I think what we’re getting out there from the states is the normal pushback. … But overall, the 1994 act required all states to submit an accountability plan to show how improvements would be implemented and have their plan approved by the department. None of the states were in compliance with that when we arrived. When the date rolled around for the states to be in compliance, 52 states were in compliance, including D.C. and Puerto Rico. So implementation has been almost unbelievable.

KONDRACKE: Would you say that the public school establishment — that is to say the school boards, and teachers’ unions and so on — would favor reauthorization of NCLB when it comes up again, based on their experience, or do you have a problem at the local level?

PAIGE: I think the majority, I think there would be a strong support for NCLB as it is with certain small adjustments. I think that the doom and gloom that was predicted earlier turned out to be blue smoke, and many schools are now reaping the good rewards for compliance with NCLB. The number of schools identified for improvement and the number of schools that did not make AYP this time is reduced, and there’s a general good feeling going on in a lot of places. There’s still some places where there’s some pain and people are feeling pressed. But I see the growth, and I see the change; I think that the culture of public education in the United States has changed forever. Even the dialogue, even when it’s arguments, it’s about school progress and excellence, and sound pedagogy, and measuring students. It’s about the right things. … I don’t think the public’s going to tolerate the poor performance we’ve tolerated in the past.

KONDRACKE: When will we know whether NCLB has had a measurable effect on student performance?

PAIGE: We know some now already. The information we have from [National Assessment of Educational Progress] data, but we’ll know even better from the next report of NAEP, which I think is next year. … NAEP is often referred to as the nation’s report card. And by the way, let me focus on that for just a minute. We’re saying, to answer your question, measurable results based on objective analysis, NAEP data will say we are or are not improving. Not how people feel, not improved self image — data, scores. I was watching a rerun of [former Speaker] Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.] and a discussion with Bob Reich, secretary of Labor under Clinton, and he was making a big point, “we invested in education.” I had to restrain myself from throwing a book at the TV set, that this argument is put forth like someone should applaud it, when in reality someone should ask, “Where is the return on that investment?” All this bragging about how much money was spent on education, can you explain to me why fourth graders lost ground during this period of time? Explain that to me. How’d they get away with that? We’re measuring money and how much we spend, and it’s insulting. That’s what we’re saying. Measure student performance, and you’ll know when the data comes out.

KONDRACKE: What is the future funding situation? How much of an increase in funding has the Bush administration been responsible for, and what are you anticipating for next year?

PAIGE: Overall his spending has increased about 36 percent under President Bush. This is even under a competitive environment, where there is fierce competition for the federal dollar, with the war, the economy and other things. …

KONDRACKE: Senator Kerry says that the administration’s ’04 budget called for a 40 percent reduction in after-school funding, which he would increase by $1 billion.

PAIGE: Our fiscal ’04 budget reduced the spending for … after-school programs by $400 million. … Now the reason we did that is because our research … showed that there was not evidence of these programs working; matter of fact, to the contrary. … So we in our budget submission reduced it, and I was directed to look into ways we could improve the program so we could increase the funding and spend the dollars better. By the way, it attracted the attention of the present governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was out in California. He gave me a call, came by the hotel, because he’s really into the after-school programs. Well, to make a long story short, we became close friends … well before he decided to run for the governor’s chair. But anyway, basically we’ve put the money back in and brought it back up to $1 billion. Arnold and I got together, brought in some researchers and had a summit on after-school programs to figure out ways to improve this program and then re-establish the funding in it. So the point here, to our friend [Kerry], is that there are numerous examples of them spending money and not asking the question of whether we’re getting results. The difference is that we ask that question, and if we are not getting results, it’s not about how much you spend, it’s about how much you improve the lives of the students you’re working with.

KONDRACKE: The president, in his acceptance speech, said that he is going to try for a graduation test. What are the details on that, how soon would it be implemented, and how do you expect the school systems to respond?

PAIGE: Here’s my view of that. What I heard, and what I read in the briefing papers I got on this, talked about a test in high school that the people at the local places will decide on if they want to use that as a control for graduation or not. I don’t think the president meant that he was going to have a test, and if you don’t pass that test you don’t graduate from high school. I think what the president was aiming at is that we like a good deal of efficiency in our high schools. …

KONDRACKE: The American Federation of Teachers did a study that indicated charter schools were performing less well than public schools.

PAIGE: A terrifically flawed study and a flawed conclusion, all are too complicated to explain. … The idea of charter school is a strong idea that offers parents more options, which is something that adds strength to the public school system. More options, more choices, vouchers, charters, home schooling, those additional delivery systems that provide additional choices to parents strengthen public schools. I was a superintendent of a school district and I woke up every day making the point that the public school system is a viable, strong system that could compete with anybody, and not just survive, but prevail. In order to do that, we cannot do that bottled up in this monopoly. We know monopolies don’t work. Where else can you find an example of monopolies working anywhere else in the world? So the innovation, creativity, bottled up in public school teachers and principals, once that’s freed you’re going to see a force unleashed unmatched by anything before.

KONDRACKE: So it’s your contention that charter schools, on average, are performing as well as the public schools?

PAIGE: Well, I think even if you read that flawed study, deep underneath they made that point. But I also think that it’s a problem when we say charter schools. Charter schools are varied based on the charter school laws in the individual states. Some good charter school laws, such as the one here in D.C., and there are some that are not so good that produce not so good charter schools. But the idea is that if a charter school doesn’t get the students, then it goes out of business. In a traditional school, they cannot perform well for centuries and they’ll still be there.

KONDRACKE: I did not hear the word voucher in the president’s acceptance speech in New York City. Is there a de-emphasis on private school choice in this administration?

PAIGE: I think you can find the word voucher in his ’05 budget and the D.C. voucher program and in the $50 million we put in for ’05.

KONDRACKE: How much of an inhibition on the progress of NCLB have the teachers’ unions been?

PAIGE: They have an announced strategy highly financed and organized to defeat the idea that children should be on grade level.

They’re trying to get support to sue to stop the law. They’re lobbying their backsides off every chance they get. Remember, they have workshops at each state to talk this program down, how to talk to the public and destruct it. They have individual teachers in each school called union “stewards” who are there, and good at this. And most recently, in one of their executive meetings, at the NEA, they got the thought to use one dollar from the dues of teachers to finance a 527 [group] to run ads against NCLB in key states. So what are they doing? They are highly motivated to do this.

KONDRACKE: Is there an objection to NCLB that there’s too much testing, or there’s not enough money? What is their basic objection?

PAIGE: I don’t know what their real objection is; they use some of all of this. If I had a guess about the real objection is that there is some resistance to change. That’s what bureaucracies do, is protect the status quo. And this is a strong change. And by the way, I want to make one thing clear when we talk about those organizations. I make a really strong distinction between that organization and the members, teachers. … The organization is the place in the high rise over here with big salaries, that kind of thing.

KONDRACKE: Finally, Senator Kerry charges repeatedly that the middle class is being squeezed because college tuition has gone up 35 percent over the last three years, and that 220,000 young people have been priced out of college during your tenure.

He’s proposing a tax credit of up to $4,000 for a four-year period to help kids get to college. What’s your alternative?

PAIGE: The alternative is the fantastic support that the president has offered in Pell Grants, the fact that we have one million more in higher education going to college than before, and one more thing — the average Pell Grant recipient application is tending downward rather than upward.

Because the kind of student that is going to college is now changing some. More nontraditional kinds, not the 18-24 you’re used to seeing spending their whole time in college. Now you find people merging college with work and other responsibilities and they’re requiring less funds. …

So that argument is at odds with what the facts are. That shows me there needs to be more homework with what goes on in financing higher education.