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Lessons—Let the Questioning Begin

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON JANUARY 10, 2001 ]

Let the questioning begin

By Richard Rothstein

Rod Paige, superintendent of schools in Houston, has been chosen by President-elect George W. Bush to be secretary of education. His Senate confirmation hearing begins this morning. This is what we ought to hear from senators:

SENATOR NO. 1 Mr. Paige, Governor Bush campaigned to protect local control of education and would not, he said, be a “federal superintendent of schools.” Instead, he would remove strings from federal funds, giving states and districts greater discretion.

Yet the president-elect also called for new programs in areas traditionally within state or local authority, with new strings attached. He wants to require annual student testing, starting in kindergarten for reading, and make states publish results on the Internet. He wants to finance tutors for low-scoring students, and turn Head Start into a reading and math program. He wants to pay for training teachers (emphasizing phonics) and get states to demand tougher teacher accountability.

And he wants schools to adopt zero-tolerance policies for disruptive students, expelling any who use drugs, alcohol, glue or aerosol paint. He wants to provide money for character education, and have schools teach sexual abstinence.

Perhaps districts should adopt these ideas. But, Mr. Paige, will it be your policy to require them to do so by tying federal funds to their adoption?

Unlike recent secretaries, you are a professional educator, a former education school dean. So you know well that educators, parents, psychologists and other experts disagree on whether annual testing is wise, whether kindergarten is not too early to teach reading, phonics is the only approach, zero-tolerance policies punish minor infractions appropriately and not too severely, and abstinence education is effective.

The dissenters may be misguided, but isn’t local control an empty slogan if school boards have no freedom to experiment or make mistakes?

Under President Clinton, federal education dollars grew little, but rhetoric mushroomed. There seemed to be no policy area where Mr. Clinton hesitated to intrude, from school uniforms to class size, from testing to after-school programs. His, too, may have been good ideas, but he wasn’t the federal superintendent of schools either.

Reversing this growth in the federal role must mean more than rejecting Clintonian programs you dislike. It also means resisting a new list of favored panaceas and grants- with-strings, no matter how smart your ideas may be about accountability, testing, reading or discipline.

In a recent article, you boasted of making progress in Houston because you did not put faith “in any single gimmick or formula for school improvement.”

“School systems are complex,” you said, “and looking for a simple solution is, well, simple-minded.”

To make these sentiments real, shouldn’t you give states and districts power to reject your policies when, in their best judgment, they find your ideas to be simple-minded?

Mr. Paige, in 1989 you were elected to the Houston school board, urging a stronger focus on achievement. As secretary, will you bequeath a climate where fewer will seek election to local boards, because policy making will have been federalized by those nominally committed to local control?

SENATOR NO. 2 Mr. Paige, in Houston you are lobbying the Texas Legislature to finance preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. That sounds like a campaign platform of Vice President Gore.

Despite your progress in raising test scores and narrowing the gap between white- and minority-student scores, still only 72 percent of Houston students passed the Texas state test last year, far from the president- elect’s goal of “leaving no child behind.” Have you concluded that waiting until children enter kindergarten is already too late?

Preschool is costly. Few states can afford it without federal funds, and your proposal will meet stiff resistance in Texas for that reason. Is this a use of the federal budget surplus on which Democrats and Republicans can now agree?

SENATOR NO. 3 Mr. Paige, the president-elect’s most controversial idea is to give federal money as vouchers to children in low-scoring schools. As Houston superintendent, you implemented a voucher plan, but it differs from Mr. Bush’s proposal.

Your plan did not permit use of vouchers at religious schools, and you required private schools taking vouchers to give state tests, publishing scores just like public schools. You supported vouchers, but only if private schools became accountable to the public.

When he was governor, Mr. Bush urged vouchers, but his plan failed in the Legislature when he refused to include an accountability provision like Houston’s. Which will the new administration propose: secular vouchers with accountability, as in Houston, or unrestricted vouchers without accountability, as in the election platform?

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