Bush Cabinet Upheaval Accelerated

Times Staff Writer

The secretaries of agriculture, energy and education are leaving the Bush administration, with Education Secretary Roderick Paige leaving the deepest public impression through the Bush landmark No Child Left Behind Act.

The departures of Paige, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham — along with the resignations of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans — bring to six the number of Cabinet members who are leaving. There are 15 Cabinet positions.

Asked today whether those were the final resignations as Bush plans for a second term in the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said: “The process continues, and we continue to move forward on that process. ... I wouldn’t speculate beyond that.”

Paige, 71, grew up in segregated Mississippi and became chief of the Houston schools, a post he held for seven years during which test scores soared and school violence fell.

Paige, a former football coach, is the first school superintendent and first African American to be education secretary.

He tirelessly promoted No Child Left Behind, one of the president’s proudest first-term achievements. It requires schools to annually test students in third though eighth grades in math and English, and to show regular improvement until 100% of their students are proficient in the two subjects.

“Rod Paige has been at the forefront of fundamentally reforming and improving our nation’s public education system so that no child is left behind in America,” Bush said today in a statement.

“We have only begun the long-term transformation of education so that future generations can enjoy all of the promise and opportunity America has to offer. Thanks to the hard work of Rod Paige, we have a very strong start and are well on our way to fulfilling that promise,” the president said.

A leading candidate to replace Paige is Margaret Spellings, who played a key role in the White House negotiations with Congress that led to passage of the act.

Spellings, Bush’s chief domestic policy advisor, worked for Bush when he was governor of Texas and helped him usher in education reforms there.

Paige compared No Child Left Behind with Brown vs. Board of Education — the 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.

But Paige also drew criticism from local education officials who struggled to implement a law they said was deeply flawed. Paige also incurred the wrath of the 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, 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.

“No Child Left Behind is indelibly launched. A culture of accountability is gripping the American educational landscape,” Paige said in a statement today.

Paige told Bush he would prefer to leave by the end of the first presidential term in January to pursue a “personal project” he did not identify.

The energy secretary, Abraham, noted in his resignation letter that he and his wife, Jane, have three young children “and these past four years have posed significant challenges on our family in many ways.”

A former senator from Michigan, Abraham joined the administration after he lost a bid for reelection. Sources quoted by Associated Press said he intends to stay in Washington and work in private law practice.

Abraham was unable to persuade Congress to enact the Bush administration’s broad energy agenda.

Abraham worked to expand the government’s efforts to safeguard nuclear materials and convinced the White House to put more money into nuclear nonproliferation efforts. He also pushed to expand research into hydrogen-fuel vehicles.

“I believe that our successes in the Department of Energy during the past four years clearly reflect the commitment you have made to America’s long-term energy and national security,” Abraham said in his resignation letter, made public today.

Abraham “helped develop our national energy policy to reduce our country’s reliance on foreign sources of energy and to provide reliable, affordable and environmentally sound energy for America’s future,” President Bush said in a statement issued today. “In the war on terror, Spence Abraham played a pivotal role in keeping the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people through his work on nuclear nonproliferation.”

Among the issues Ann Veneman faced in the Department of Agriculture were a mad cow disease scare. Last month, Japanese trade negotiators agreed to reopen their markets to U.S. beef, 10 months after discovery of a single case of the disease in Washington state prompted Japan to ban American imports.

The daughter of a California peach grower, Veneman, 55, was the nation’s first female agriculture secretary. She had been practicing law in Sacramento when Bush selected her for his administration. She was a high-ranking official in the Agriculture Department under former President George H. W. Bush.

The current president called her a “strong advocate for America’s farm and ranch families” in a statement today.

“She has helped ensure common sense forest management and skillfully implemented the Healthy Forests Initiative,” he said.

Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Duke Helfand and Times wire services contributed to this report.