U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige made his case for school choice to a divided crowd of skeptics and supporters at the ARCO Forum last night.
In 2001, Paige drafted the Bush Administration’s major initiative on public education, the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which allows parents to choose schools for their children and cuts funding from schools with dwindling enrollments.
Last night, Paige called the act “the most powerful affirmative action program ever devised.”
Paige likened a successful school district to a business.
“The opportunity for students to take their business someplace else is a healthy incentive,” he explained. “Public schools have no incentive to embark on reforms or be inventive. There are no consequences for failure.”
Few tangible improvements have been made to K-12 public education in the U.S. since the famous 1975 report on the problems in the American educational system, entitled “A Nation At Risk,” Paige said.
But Paige said the Bush Administration’s policy of school choice will allow the nation’s schools to “turn resources into results.”
“Choice is essential for effective public school reform,” he said. “Only in education could choice be a topic of innovation.... We’re still trying to catch up with the present.”
Paige, the first black Secretary of Education, has served at various points in his career as a teacher, coach, school board member and superintendent of the Houston school district—the seventh largest in the country—before assuming his current position in January of 2001.
By “embracing choice,” he claimed, the public school system in Houstonitself became the top choice for most local families.
Several audience members openly criticized various points of Paige’s argument for the No Child Left Behind Act.
Students from the Graduate School of Education said that the plan would hurt students whose parents do not take an active interest in their childrens’ education.
Seth Adams, a public school teacher in Cambridge, described Paige’s solution of making public school reforms in part by giving vouchers toward private education “oxymoronic.”
After the question-and-answer period, Paige reiterated his reasons for creating the No Child Left Behind Act.
“If you do not believe all children can learn...there is a certain peace that you can experience,” Paige said. “But if you believe all children can learn and all children are not learning, that brings about a certain kind of disturbance.”