- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

As governor of Texas, George W. Bush made education a major issue, warning educators and unionists that standards and accountability are top priorities. He did the same on the presidential campaign trail. So it was no surprise that his choice to run the Department of Education, Houston Superintendent Rod Paige, reiterated as much to the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and steered clear of an all-out debate on vouchers.

"I am a passionate promoter of public education," Mr. Paige said. "The term voucher has acquired such a negative tone that I've never used it." Of course, his remarks delighted the Democrats on the panel, whose outgoing chairman is Sen. Ted Kennedy.

It may not be the right time to take on this fight, but at the very least, one would hope the president-elect and his secretary of education are on the same page when it comes to the voucher issue. In terms of accountability they clearly are. President-elect Bush has said and Mr. Paige has proven as Houston's schools chief that raising the bar and outlining clear goals on how to reach them are necessary reform components.

Consider the victories in Houston, which is the largest school district in Texas and the nation's seventh largest. Houston's scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills have risen consistently since 1994, when Mr. Paige became superintendent. In 1992, fewer than 45 percent of Houston students passed the math test. By 1998 almost 70 percent passed. Black students have done especially well, with 10th graders setting records this year in reading and math, and scoring above the state average. They accomplished those goals because of the accountability and assessment standards in place in Texas, a RAND study released in July said.

How that happened is no state secret. In two words you might call it flexible reform. First, the state legislature simplified, redefined and funded certain reforms. Then the state legislature granted school districts and parents the flexibility to implement the reforms. For example, teachers were granted 33 percent raises, increasing the average salary by $8,232. At the same time school districts stopped what are called social promotions and state regulations were cut in half, restoring local control and giving parents the option of transferring their children to better-performing schools in other districts.

The end results of that flexible reform, though, gave Texans bragging rights to more than just better test scores for black students. The Fordham Foundation says Texas ranked first in the nation in teacher quality, and the congressionally created National Education Goals Panel ranked Texas as one of two states that made the greatest recent progress in education. Again, while those victories were made without even mentioning the "v" word, "v" still stands for vouchers. Giving parents the option of taking their children to a private school if their public schools are failing would be the most flexible reform of all.

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