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Bush looks to home state for education leader

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- With his announcement Friday that Rod Paige is his pick for secretary of education, President-elect George W. Bush has found in his home state of Texas a man who has a wealth of experience in education, who has achieved results managing a large school system under tight budget constraints and who shares many of the governor's political views.

Paige, 67, is divorced with grown children. He has served as superintendent of schools for the Houston Independent School District since 1994. Before that, he served as dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University.

Paige, who is African-American, was born in Mississippi. His father was a school principal and his mother was a school librarian.

The Houston Independent School District's enrollment exceeds 209,000. Fifty-three per cent of those students are Hispanic, 34 per cent African American and 11 per cent white.

Approximately two-thirds of HISD students meet federal criteria for free and reduced-price lunches, and about one quarter are not fluent in English.

Paige oversees a $1.9 billion budget, which works out to $5,672 per student in Harris County, the second-lowest per-student expense among the state's 12 largest school districts.

During Paige's tenure, academic performance on standardized tests has increased. Last May, 73 per cent of the district's 10th graders passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, up from 37 per cent in 1995.

Students at HISD performed better than the state average across the board, with 97 percent passing reading (compared to 96 percent statewide), and 95 percent passing math (compared to 93 percent statewide.)

African-American and white students at HISD also performed better than the state average on the TAAS writing test, while the Hispanic passing rate at HISD in writing was four points below the state average.

"At HISD, all of our students are making tremendous progress; we are leaving no one behind," Paige said last May, echoing a phrase often used by Gov. Bush. "We are proving that inner-city kids, many of them from very poor households, can and will learn."

"He literally straightened this district out. It was a mess," said Coletta Keenan Sayer, president of the Houston chapter of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. "He's really no baloney, a real down-to-earth person."

Paige has worked to decentralize Houston's school system, and instill its administrators and teachers with a sense of accountability, said Sayer, who voted for Vice President Al Gore in the November election.

"He's taken the purse strings and given them to the principals and to the site-based management committees, and then he holds you responsible for the money you use. He has great organizational skills."

Though "a strong Republican," Paige is also a bridge-builder, said Sayer, who has worked in the district for 13 years. "He's brought pride to HISD. Before, people would say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry you work for HISD. Now, everyone recognizes you're working for one of the number-one school districts in the United States."

She credited Paige for soliciting criticism and being able to cultivate leadership among those who work for him.

"He told me I didn't always have to agree with him; I took him at his word."

He was elected to the HISD Board of Education in 1989 and served as its president in 1992. Soon after he got the job as superintendent, he ran into criticism from the head of the teachers union, Sayer said, but that has quieted in recent years.

He earned a bachelor of science degree from Jackson State University and a Master of Arts and a doctorate from Indiana University.

Paige told the Dallas Morning News last week that he identifies with core Republican ideas, citing accountability in public education, fiscal conservatism, personal responsibility and limits on abortion.

The newspaper said Paige was involved in the 1980 presidential campaign of Bush's father, George Bush, first as a volunteer and then coordinator in the 18th Congressional District.


Friday, December 29, 2000


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