- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Education Secretary Rod Paige says he once had a low view of federal workers. He now thinks better of them — perhaps at least partly because of reforms he instituted within his own agency.

When he arrived in Washington in 2001, he found an Education Department wracked with charges of criminal fraud, waste and abuse. “The Ernst & Young report said you guys can’t count — you can’t reconcile your books,” he said. “Money was being lost. But all that has changed.” Indeed, crimes have been charged, and accountability procedures have been introduced. Not long ago, for only the second time in its quarter-century history, the department received a clean financial audit.

Cleaner government is no mean achievement. But as he made clear in a recent interview, the former Houston school superintendent hardly is content with that. He has substantive goals to achieve, and they are ambitious.

Consider the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, whose implementation is Dr. Paige’s central occupation. The legislation was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a legacy of Lyndon Johnson.

The 1965 law marked the beginning of federal spending on public schools and the strings that have come with it. Conservatives have long dissented from the federal involvement in local education. But not George W. Bush. He didn’t get all of what he proposed in the overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the changes that were made he believes will improve the education of literally all children. As Dr. Paige put it, “We owe every child the opportunity to maximize whatever potential that child has.”

How the No Child Left Behind Act proposes to do that is arresting. In general, the law seeks to make school systems more accountable for the education they provide. Thus, states must create their own standards for what a child should know and learn, grade by grade. States must test — with appropriate tests — every student’s progress toward those standards. And states must sort test results by racial and ethnic minority group and according to economic disadvantage, disability and limited English proficiency. Sorting test results, Dr. Paige said, means “you have to pay attention to all the subgroups” — and then do something about it. “You cannot mask failure inside of averages.”

Notwithstanding various complaints about the law by educators — including the excuse-making “we need more money” — all 50 states submitted their first “No Child Left Behind” plans by the Jan. 31 deadline. The department has approved the plans of 15 states — Texas not yet among them, Dr. Paige says. When asked how many years must pass before significant progress takes place, the secretary is bullish. “I see it right away,” emphasizing that reading scores should improve quickly.

One must hope he is right: Reading performance hasn’t improved in more than 15 years, and only 32 percent of fourth-graders read proficiently. If it is true, as commonly is said, that from grades one to three a child learns to read and that from fourth grade on a child reads to learn, then 68 percent of all fourth-graders in America are unprepared to learn and thus fated to fall behind.

The Bush-Paige agenda seeks to improve educational achievement in general but also aims to close the achievement gaps between groups. If the still wide gaps among racial and ethnic groups are closed, higher educators no longer will be able to say, as many have for three decades, that to treat minority applicants equally it is necessary to treat them differently — such as by awarding them preferences in admission.

Dr. Paige, however, is unwilling to wait until those gaps are closed to end preferences. He unequivocally supports the administration’s position against preferences in the Michigan cases now before the Supreme Court. “In pursuit of building a better nation,” said this son of the segregated South who has been a teacher, coach and college dean, “we should have a policy” that neither puts at an advantage nor a disadvantage applicants “because of their race or ethnicity.”

The Bush-Paige agenda thus is opposed to discrimination in whatever form it comes. But as both men have emphasized, it also is for using race-neutral means to admit a “diverse”student body. It has fallen to Dr. Paige to assume the labor of stimulating a national conversation on that subject. “Regardless of how Michigan goes,” he said, “this is worth doing.” The secretary’s plate is indeed full.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.

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