When Rod Paige was named U.S. Education Secretary by President George W. Bush a year and a half ago, the appointment was greeted with skepticism and apathy by many choice advocates. They felt, partly because of his career in what William Bennett used to call the “education blob,” that former school administrator Paige would be a drag on Bush on the issue of school choice— which to many advocates is the only education reform worth fighting over.
But, on the basis of what he has done, planned, and gotten Bush to do, Paige hardly qualifies as a voucher wet blanket. In fact, if the administration does have a zealot on school choice, it isn’t the President. It’s his education secretary. After all, it was Bush who a year ago declined to lobby strongly for school vouchers.
“When it counted,” as one school choice advocate complains, “Bush left school choice behind.”
After meeting with Paige in April, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution President Ken Brown came away encouraged by the education secretary’s obvious passion, commitment, and interest on the school choice issue. The meeting coincided with meetings between Paige and others interested in school choice, including corporate restructuring and investment magnate Ted Forstmann Sr.
“He kept asking how I think we can get choice going, why the issue has been losing so often over the years, saying we’ve got to turn it around,” recounted Brown.
Paige could easily choose to stand on his laurels, having passed one of the more significant education reforms in several decades. Brown, however, said he came away thinking that is not Paige’s intention.
“I think he wants to be the education secretary who implements some meaningful reforms,” Brown said. “And I think specifically he intends to get something done on school choice over and above the little bit of action they had last year.”
This puts a different light on the early May visit by Paige and the President to Milwaukee, where they toured the nation’s premier school choice program. The visit has been dismissed by critics—and even some friends—as an empty public relations gesture.
But, as Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of any job is just showing up.” The President and his education secretary helped school choice efforts around the country by showing up in Milwaukee, just as the previous administration helped school choice opponents around the country by not showing up in Milwaukee.
As House Majority Leader Richard Armey noted with cutting irony in his 2000 State of Education response, former Education Secretary Richard Riley never once made a fact-finding trip to Milwaukee. Indeed, in dozens of attacks on “vouchers” throughout his tenure, Riley almost never mentioned the one actual voucher program in operation.
The President’s and secretary’s comments in Milwaukee suggest the visit was about more than public relations.
“Wisconsin understand the power of unleashing parental choice,” said Paige. “Now, thanks to No Child Left Behind, parents of children in failing schools all across this nation are empowered to do the same.”
This summer, Paige announced, he and the department will promulgate regulations on public-school choice and accompanying services. While these efforts are part of the program already enacted in 2001, aides close to Paige say the secretary will use his discretion to make sure those rules do not retard choice, but promote it. The same applies to a program designed to help capitalize charter schools, which have stalled in some states under a morass of red tape.
The secretary will also host a high-profile event on choice this summer at the department. The summit will help states, educators, and regulators answer their how-to-do-it questions. But it will do this in a spirit of celebrating the opportunities choice provides.
Children in failing schools, Paige argues, “have waited long enough.” He will be using his bully pulpit and educator’s platform to get choice moving, because “we can’t get hung up on the process.”
Gregory Fossedal is chairman of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution and founder of Teacher Choice, an association of teachers in 38 states active in speaking out on education issues. His email address is [email protected].