'Schools are not going to be able to escape'

"'Schools are not going to be able to escape'" Continued...

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

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."


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