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Education Secretary Paige Plans to Step Down

Times Staff Writers

Education Secretary Rod Paige has told the White House that he intends to resign, perhaps as early as next week, senior administration officials said Friday.

“He’s been thinking and talking about it” with the White House, one official said on condition of anonymity.

Always reluctant to discuss personnel matters before they are announced, White House officials declined to comment publicly on Paige. But a second senior administration official confirmed that the education secretary would resign, saying the announcement could come within days.

A leading candidate to replace him is Margaret Spellings, President Bush’s chief domestic policy advisor. She also worked for Bush when he was governor of Texas and helped him usher in education reforms there.

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Paige would become the third Cabinet secretary to resign since Bush’s reelection last week. On Tuesday, the White House announced the resignations of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans.

Paige, 71, arrived in Washington with a reputation as one of the most successful school administrators in the nation. During his seven years as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District -- the seventh largest in the country -- academic test scores soared, a sharply fractured school community became largely unified and violence in city schools fell by 20%.

Paige was the nation’s first school superintendent and first African American to serve as education secretary. In that post, he tirelessly promoted the No Child Left Behind act, one of the president’s proudest first-term achievements. It requires schools to test students in third though eighth grades annually in math and English, and to show regular improvement until 100% of their students are proficient in the two subjects.

Spellings played a key role in the White House negotiations with Congress that led to passage of the act.

Paige compared the law’s effect with that of Brown vs. Board of Education -- the landmark Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation a half-century ago -- and credited No Child Left Behind with lifting achievement levels and focusing attention on the persistent test-score gap between white and Asian students on the one hand and Latino and African American students on the other.

“He’s been absolutely firm that this country must start educating all of its students to high standards. The secretary has been a dedicated visionary in advocating for this principle,” said Theodor Rebarber, chief executive of the Education Leaders Council, a Washington group that represents reform-minded state education leaders and others. “His tenure in leading that charge will be remembered.”

But Paige also drew criticism from local education leaders and school district superintendents who struggled to implement a law they called deeply flawed and overly complex.

Local leaders said that No Child Left Behind penalized even those schools that were getting better but failed to reach rigid targets for academic improvement. Paige was unwilling to tweak that aspect of the law, saying it was important to maintain high expectations for schools.

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“He would sometimes convey this notion that anybody from the so-called ‘education establishment’ who complained about the law was somehow not interested in doing good things for kids,” said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn. “It made it very hard to have a sensible conversation under those terms. I don’t think he’ll go down in history as the most effective education secretary.”

Paige, the nation’s seventh education secretary, incurred the wrath of the powerful National Education Assn. by calling the Democratic-leaning union of teachers a “terrorist organization” during a closed-door meeting with the nation’s governors in February.

He later apologized for that remark, but continued to accuse the NEA of using “obstructionist scare tactics” in opposing No Child Left Behind. The organization contends that the Bush administration is inadequately funding the law and imposing unrealistic expectations on schools and teachers.

On Friday, NEA President Reg Weaver said Paige’s departure could help thaw frosty relations between the union and the administration.

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“I really hope that we would be able to find common ground on a number of issues” when a new secretary is named, Weaver said. “I would think that anybody in that position would work more cooperatively with the NEA ... so that education policy makes sense and advances the opportunities for all children.”

The son of a principal and a librarian, Paige was born and grew up in segregated Monticello, Miss.

He became a Republican -- even though members of his family were Democrats -- because, as he put it later, “the guys that were lynching us were Democrats.”

He attended Jackson State University on a sports scholarship and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in physical education at Indiana University. He later served as head football coach at Texas Southern University before becoming a professor and dean of education there. Paige was elected to Houston’s school board in 1989 and was named superintendent in 1994.

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He delivered what amounted to his own valediction on Oct. 28, when he participated in “Ask the White House,” an online question-and-answer session on the White House website.

“I think a lot of us will look back on this moment in time as the ‘tipping point.’ It is the time where we changed our mind-set. We stopped measuring educational success by inputs -- like money spent -- and instead started examining outputs, measuring whether students are indeed learning,” he said.

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Chen reported from Washington and Helfand from Los Angeles.

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