Former superintendent takes the reins at Education

As Roderick R. Paige takes command of the Education Department, his background as a moderate, results-oriented schools superintendent promises to be both a strength and a weakness.

Paige's administrative experience in Houston could make him an effective manager of the departmental bureaucracy, and his intimate knowledge of schools could help him sell the administration's education agenda to the public. Still to be determined, however, is whether Paige's lack of experience on the national political scene will diminish his effectiveness with Congress and his clout with the White House.

"He's gracious, confident, and self-effacing. It's an unusual combination, especially for Washington," said Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "On the negative side, he doesn't know Washington. He's going to find that he doesn't have a lot of friends here, even if people are friendly to him."

Paige, who had worked at Texas Southern University as dean of the College of Education and as football coach, was named superintendent of Houston's public schools in 1994 after serving on the city's school board. Under Paige, the district's test scores climbed and school violence declined. Paige persuaded many Houston principals to forgo tenure in exchange for performance bonuses and more leeway in their use of resources. He contracted out many school services and instituted a small-scale voucher program that allowed students in an overcrowded school to transfer to a private school.

"I've admired his work," said former Philadelphia Schools Superintendent David Hornbeck, a Democrat who emulated some of Paige's reforms in Philadelphia. "I think his own dedication to urban kids and poor kids and kids of color, if given the freedom in the administration, will be good for kids."

President Bush's aides insist that Paige will get that freedom, and they note that Paige's work in Houston influenced Bush's education policies in Texas and on the campaign trail. Bush's education positions "have been born out of the last 10 years of experience, and Rod has been a leader of that movement in Texas," said Bush education adviser Sandy Kress, a Democrat who served on the Dallas school board when Paige served on Houston's board.

Also working in Paige's favor will be his long-standing ties to the Bush family. Paige leaned Democrat before he met the Bush clan more than 20 years ago. Converted, he signed up to work for all three of George H.W. Bush's presidential campaigns and served as an informal adviser to George W.'s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. "I identified with that family more than I did anything else," Paige said in an interview at the outset of George W. Bush's campaign. "They represented for me decency, statesmanship, and the kind of leadership that I felt was moral and courageous."

But in any administration, tussles between the White House and Cabinet departments over policy-making are inevitable. "Early indications are that this administration is going to run education out of the White House," predicted a former aide to President Clinton. "They're sending people with strong education backgrounds to the White House, notably Margaret La Montagne," who was Bush's top education adviser in Texas and who is now assistant to the President for domestic policy.

No stranger to bureaucracy, Paige will be taking on a new one. The 4,600-person Education Department is smaller than the Houston Independent School District. Paige is bringing several people from his Houston staff with him to ease the transition, but 97 percent of his new staff are career bureaucrats.

Paige's greatest learning curve may come with regard to Congress. Paul Houston compared Paige with Clinton Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, noting that Riley's initial strength was his background as a former governor. That experience gave Riley a deep understanding of the realities of the policy-making process, whereas Paige will start his new job with a deep understanding of the consequences of policy-making.

Nevertheless, Houston gives Paige high marks for his political savvy. "He's a very astute politician, with a small 'p,' " Houston said. "He was able to get credit for a voucher program with the Right without hurting the public system at all."

Still, Washington may offer up a few surprises for Paige. "His confirmation hearing was a love-fest, but Paige ought not get too complacent, because these guys will screw him the first chance they get," the former Clinton aide said. "It's their nature." The ex-aide said that politics could get nasty if Bush and Paige push hard for vouchers or if they try to consolidate some of the programs that were created by key Democrats.

At the confirmation hearing, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was already getting Paige on the record as saying that Houston's students benefited from smaller class sizes and from a school construction program--Democratic priorities that Republicans love to hate.

But incoming House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who recently met with Paige, was confident in the new Secretary's abilities to take on Washington. "He'll have ample hands on deck, I think, to certainly assist him in administering the department and learning the politics of Washington and the politics at the department," he said. "The only way to learn is trial by fire."