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'Schools are not going to be able to escape'

National | INTERVIEW: Secretary of Education Rod Paige argues that the president's massive hike in education spending will allow Uncle Sam to demand results-and push competition

Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

ALTHOUGH he is a famous native son of Mississippi, scores of inner-city children at a Jackson, Miss., Boys and Girls Club seemingly were unimpressed with Rod Paige's celebrity during a visit last month. Mr. Paige, the first African-American secretary of education, gazed through a gym window at grade-schoolers clamoring for basketballs. Others shot pool behind him.

All around, children passed time after another day of school. But what happened during their school day? This is the question that drives Mr. Paige.

In an interview with WORLD, the nation's education secretary said he is a walking and talking testament to what education can produce. "In the Baptist church where I grew up, they used to sing a song called 'I Am a Testimony,'" Mr. Paige said. "And as I've lived my life, I more and more think about that because I see myself now as a testimony. I am ... a testimony to what caring parents, dedicated to education, can do ... to provide opportunity for a person to come from rural Mississippi-Monticello, Mississippi, specifically-to a place around the table with the cabinet members of the president of the United States."

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The former teacher, school administrator, and coach chortles at those on the left who mock President Bush's education policies; and Mr. Paige contends winsomely with conservatives who say the Bush education plan is financially profligate.

The tension that Mr. Paige must tackle as President Bush's preacher for big-spending federal education reform was evident during the Mississippi trip. Mr. Paige toured his alma mater, Jackson State University, and the Boys and Girls Club with Mississippi's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman.

At an ensuing press conference with Mr. Barbour at his side, Mr. Paige countered the assertion by some that the president's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) plan makes demands without offering teachers the money to meet them. He cited a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study showing the United States now spends $480 billion annually on public and private education.

Quickly, however, he balanced his defense of increased federal education spending with this disclaimer: "We are now in the middle of the pack [in education effectiveness] when it comes to the rest of the industrial nations. So we are not getting the bang for the buck that we need.... We spend $120 billion less now on the military [than the total spending on education].... Education is a big spender; as a whole, it is a poor producer."

For Mr. Paige, this seems to be the message: The Bush administration is spending a lot of money, but it will demand better results.

Mr. Paige seizes every opportunity to cheer teachers-about every 10th sentence or so. "There is a secret," he told WORLD. "Teachers love kids." But he never misses a chance to challenge union-led anti-reformers as "retarding and restricting our growth in education." Teachers unions, in turn, are heavily critical of Mr. Paige.

Besides being his birthplace, Mr. Paige appreciates Mississippi and states like it precisely because of their "right-to-work" laws that lessen teacher membership in unions. Such states cooperate better with President Bush's NCLB plan. In Mississippi's case, federal funds also flow significantly above the national average. This state receives 15 percent of its education budget from the federal government compared to a national average among other states of 8 percent.

With TV cameras rolling and Mr. Barbour at his side, Mr. Paige first commended Mr. Barbour, saying his vision is the kind that "can transform us as a state the same way that it did me as an individual." Yet Mr. Paige immediately went on to commend the state's current efforts (under a Democratic governor) to comply with NCLB guidelines as a good example of education reform.

Education has become a key issue in Mississippi politics. Mississippi's Democratic governor, Ronnie Musgrove, brags often about how he put "a computer in every classroom." Republican Barbour has scored big political points during the current campaign countering that computers are nice, but he'd rather have "more discipline in every classroom."

For Mr. Barbour, the amount of money that is spent-either at the federal, state, or local level-cannot be the barometer by which an elected official is judged. He is keying on a theme of plain-talking, honest leadership that is willing to "say no" to bad ideas, about education or any matter.

"We've got to quit judging politicians' commitment to education by how much money they spend," he told WORLD. "We've got to start judging them by the results that they demand and achieve from our schools for our children. And that means, What do our children learn? How much do they know? At what level can they perform? All the other talk is irrelevant for that child's future."

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