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."
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."
That's the same theme Mr. Paige tries to emphasize at the national level even as journalists often turn to discussions of budget numbers. He bristles at those who suggest that the president has not budgeted enough funds to ensure teachers can instruct children at NCLB levels. "What amount of funding would satisfy them?" asked one local reporter during the public press conference.
"That's the question I ask," Mr. Paige retorted. "When will they be satisfied? Because the amount of money that the president has put into the No Child Left Behind Act is historical. It is the most money ever put in the federal budget for expenditures for the education of disadvantaged children. To give you an example to make it clear, ... when we took office, the Department of Education was spending $300 million a year on reading instruction; it was called the Reading Excellence Act.... The president came in and his proposal was to put reading in a program called 'Reading First.' ... And his initial budget was for $900 million. That triples it. The '04 budget now is up to $1.1 billion. That means there will be over $5 billion ... over a five-year period. So those kinds of questions from teachers come from one or two or three different sources. One is, they are not quite familiar with the budget and what actually goes into it. Another one is one that is a little bit more sinister, and that is those who are not quite in agreement with other elements of the [NCLB] Act."
Union hardliners, especially in the National Education Association, top Mr. Paige's "sinister element" list. He condemns the group for "protecting its own union status quo" and "showing little interest in children and parents who have to struggle to get an education for their children, who need the help of teachers, and who need the help of schools. We should be very upset with the attitude of an organization that tries to unravel the best hope that children have had in many years in the No Child Left Behind Act."
The law places a high emphasis on federally monitored student testing. The hope is that NCLB will bring to the surface any weaknesses in local schools, which then will be at least financially motivated to address them because of a possible loss of NCLB federal funding.
Yet some wish the Bush administration would press harder for vouchers on a national level. Children's parents, they argue, already know what schools are good and bad in their area. Who needs more federal tests to prove the obvious? Give parents voucher money equal to the cost of educating their children in a public school and put the market system to work as they choose the best schools.
"That's what we are doing!" Mr. Paige insists. His voice has a "can't win for losing" tone to it, but remains patient nonetheless: "We are busting our backs out there doing that."
He cited the District of Columbia voucher initiative recently pushed through Congress. "We agree with that, but we have a democratic system here and so we have to get what we can out of the system," he said. "I believe that a child, no matter his performance, should be able to choose the school that's best for him. That's the policy that we'd like to see across the United States. Unfortunately, there are too many people who disagree with that."
Competition already is forcing education reform, Mr. Paige believes, even among those who don't want it. For instance, while some oppose homeschooling, Mr. Paige thinks "homeschooling for parents who feel that that's best for their child should be available to whoever supports it. I think homeschooling is one of the delivery systems among a lot of delivery systems. And we think that parents should have choice."
The success of nonpublic-school options-homeschools, private schools, religious schools-will force competition on public schools, he argues. "I think at some point schools are not going to be able to escape the competition that the market system brings because homeschooling is there; cyberschooling is there; the growth of other schools. So that there is no way to get around it."
But no reform will work, Mr. Paige says, without strong parental involvement-even for students in public schools.
He recalled "the unbelievable fantastic obsession with reading" his mother instilled in her children. "My mother, whom I didn't appreciate at the time as much as I do now, insisted that we read. I have three sisters and a brother and I promise you, all of them can read and could read early," he said. "And when you look at all the children's books and classics that you're supposed to have read, we had to read them. So now it comes back to me ... just the joy and the power of reading."
He recognizes that an increasing number of families are troubled. "Parents today are under a lot of different types of stress, more so than my parents were when I grew up," he said. "Many parents are working two jobs. Both of my parents had jobs, too. So I'm not going to put that out as an excuse."
Ultimately, Mr. Barbour and Mr. Paige both argue reforms and standards are important, because all students eventually will be assessed for what they've learned-in a test called life.