When Rod Paige first came to Indiana in the 1950s, it was as a college student to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate from Indiana University.
When he returned to Indiana State recently, it was as the U.S. Secretary of Education to be honored as the 2004 Education Leader of the Year by the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation.
More than 450 Hoosiers gathered in downtown Indianapolis on September 30 to applaud as Paige received the award, given each year to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the cause of reforming public education in Indiana. Previous recipients include State Sen. Teresa Lubbers (R-Indianapolis), Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D), and business leader-philanthropist Christel DeHann.
“Dr. Paige’s development and implementation of No Child Left Behind policies has not only benefitted the children and families of Indiana, but has been a beacon of hope for children throughout our nation,” said GEO Foundation President Kevin Teasley, who also welcomed Paige to GEO’s 21st Century Charter School at Union Station prior to the award ceremony.
Calling the organization “a credible, powerful advocate for quality education,” Paige thanked GEO for the award and also for its work in educating the public about the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), including GEO’s distribution of 200,000 “free tutoring” posters. Nationwide, Paige said, free tutoring had been provided to 112,000 low-income children in the first year of NCLB.
Paige spoke about the changing education environment in the United States and the growing acceptance and proliferation of choice in education, including the choice options in NCLB, voucher programs, and charter schools. He singled out Mayor Peterson for praise as “a real leader” who not only challenged the status quo to start charter schools but also held the schools accountable for results.
“We know that charter schools can … make a difference for students who would otherwise fall through the cracks,” said Paige, noting the schools were “life-saving” for dropouts and the under-served. “Yet for some in the entrenched educational bureaucracy, they represent a threat and must be attacked.”
Even worse, he added, there are some who fight to block choice in education, whether it involves charter schools, homeschooling, or some other educational alternative. Much of that opposition, Paige noted, had to do with the special interests of adults, not the best interests of students.
“There are those who have fostered division, ill will, fear, hatred, anger, and mistrust,” he said. “Some have gone farther, stating that they will do everything possible to defeat, even sabotage, educational alternatives.”
Opposition aside, Paige brought good news about the effect of NCLB’s focus on academic progress: an increase in fourth-grade reading scores over the past three years, with substantial increases for black and Hispanic fourth-graders. In addition, the Council of Great City Schools has reported significant improvement in reading and math in the first year of NCLB for students in urban school districts.