Paige Leads Dubious Cast of Education Advisors

By Stan Karp

Secretary of Education Rod Paige is now the top spokesperson for the new President’s education plans. But the Bush Administration is bulging with Cabinet members, advisors, and consultants who have a dubious history of disservice to public education.

As the first African-American head of the Education Department and a sitting urban superintendent from Houston, Paige was treated gently by both the media and Congressional Democrats during his confirmation hearings. But his Texas record makes it clear why he was chosen to bring Bush’s punitive accountability system to a national stage.

Paige, a former college dean who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the response time of football linemen, was a longtime Republican activist and a member of the Houston school board when he was appointed superintendent in 1994. The move angered the city’s Latino population, which felt it had been overlooked, and led to new state regulations prohibiting sitting board members from moving directly to top administrative posts.

Paige’s tenure as superintendent was marked by efforts to privatize or contract out not only custodial, payroll, and food services, but also educational services like “alternative schools” for students with “discipline problems.” Hundreds of such students were removed from Houston high schools. They were also excluded from the state’s TAAS testing, a move which helped boost the scores upon which so much of Paige’s and Bush’s reputation as school reformers is based.

Paige helped design the test-driven polices that reflect the negative impact TAAS testing had on Texas schools. He put principals on “performance contracts” that relied heavily on TAAS scores. By the time Paige left, Houston’s graduation rate ranked in the bottom ten of the nation’s 100 largest school districts. (Six of the worst 14 graduations rates are in Texas cities.) According to one researcher, “fewer than 60 percent of the African-American and Latino kids who begin 9th grade in a Texas public high school make it to graduation.” This strategy of “losing” large numbers of Black and Latino students is one of the main ways Paige and other Texas superintendents “closed the achievement gap.”

In addition to Paige, the Bush Administration is pock-marked with figures who’ve made a living bashing public education:

Attorney General John Ashcroft jump-started his Missouri political career in the 1980s by demagogically campaigning against efforts to de-segregate schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, even voluntary ones. He ran a polarizing primary campaign accusing his opponent of being a “closet supporter” of school desegregation and convinced the Reagan Justice Department to switch sides and oppose court efforts to mandate integration or to have the state pay for voluntary programs.

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson is now Secretary of Health and Human Services, where he will oversee the Head Start program that Bush eventually wants to transfer to the Education Dept. Thompson was an architect of the Milwaukee voucher plan which has drained tens of millions of dollars from the public schools to subsidize private and religious schools. As co-chair (along with IBM head Louis Gerstner Jr.) of the two National Education Summits, he has been an ardent advocate of high-stakes testing.

Before becoming head of the Environmental Protection Agency, former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman led the effort to oppose court-ordered funding equity for poor districts. Whitman attempted to convince the courts that the state’s adoption of common curriculum standards was sufficient to guarantee a “thorough and efficient” education for all and that equity in funding or school programs was unnecessary.

Though her nomination was ultimately withdrawn, proposed Labor Secretary Linda Chavez had crusaded for English Only policies and against affirmative action.

Although not formally an Administration official, Vice President Cheney’s wife, Lynne Cheney, deserves special mention. A pundit for the rightwing American Enterprise Institute, Cheney was a Bush education advisor before her husband became his running mate. The American Prospect magazine has dubbed her the “leading policy assassin of right-wing cultural warriors” for her long political service to the values and agenda of the Christian right, including her term as chair of the National Endowment for Humanities under Reagan and Bush, Sr. In education, Cheney made an infamous name for herself with a sustained attack on the National History Standards in the mid-1990s. Her book, Telling The Truth, rails against the standards for being insufficiently patriotic and for devoting even limited attention to unpleasant historical realities like racism and slavery. Cheney is currently writing another book on education reform.

In addition to the above, others in Bush’s policy stable include figures from his father’s administration like Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch; corporate supporters like Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman of Lockheed Martin Corporation, and Ed Rust, Jr., chairman of State Farm Insurance; African-American voucher proponents like former NY. Congressman Floyd Flake and former Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller; and conservative education reformers like Lisa Graham Keegan, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona, and Reid Lyons, a reading and childhood development expert from the National Institute of Health.

The Administration has not yet publicly released the test scores of any of these advisors.