Paige, Rod 1933–
Rod Paige 1933–
U.S. Secretary of Education
“Who would expect any black from Mississippi to become the secretary of education?” Rod Paige’s uncle, A.J. Bridges, mused in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. When he was named to the cabinet of President George W. Bush in January of 2001, Paige could indeed look back upon an amazing personal rise from his roots in segregated smalltown Mississippi. As superintendent of the Houston, Texas, school district, Paige had won national acclaim for his transformation of a troubled urban school system with academic problems of long standing. Republicans and even some Democrats considered him an ideal choice to implement President Bush’s ambitious education agenda.
Paige was born in Monticello, Mississippi, on June 17, 1933, and grew up under the strictest regimes of Deep South segregation. According to Time, he once said that he became a Republican because when he was growing up in Mississippi, “the guys that were lynching us were Democrats.” The oldest of five children of a school principal father and a librarian mother, Paige was raised in a household that emphasized education to an unusual extent. “My parents told us the solution to the world’s problems was education,” Paige told Time. All five Paige children went on to earn graduate degrees.
Even in such a studious family, Paige stood out. Left in charge of his younger siblings, “Rod would make us listen to him read,” Paige’s sister, Ray-gene, told Time. “And if we didn’t pay attention to him, we had to write a book report.” Paige attended Jackson State University, worked his way through school by unloading milk trucks, and graduated with honors in 1955. But it was the athletic field rather than the classroom that set the direction of Paige’s early career. He was the quarterback of the football team at Jackson State, and after graduating he worked for some years as a college football coach. He became head coach at Utica (Mississippi) Junior College and then at Jackson State.
A gifted football coach who later turned down offers to became an assistant coach in the National Football League, Paige could have spent the rest of his life in athletics. But his educational impulses came to the forefront once again, and he moved north to continue his studies. Working as an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, he pursued graduate
At a Glance…
Born June 17, 1933, in Monticello, MS; son of a school principal and a librarian; married and divorced; children: Rod Jr, Education: Jackson State University, Jackson, MS, 1955; Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, master’s in physical education, 1964, doctoral degree, in physical education, 1969.
Career: Utica (MS) Junior College, head football coach, 1955-62; Jackson State University, head football coach, 1962-69; Texas Southern University, Houston, TX, head football coach, athletic director, and faculty member, 1971 -84, dean of school of education, beginning 1984; elected to Houston school board, 1989; Houston school district superintendent, beginning 1994; U.S. Secretary of Education, 2001-,
Awards: Named one of top two educators in America, Council of Great City Schools, 1999.
studies at the University of Indiana and earned a doctoral degree in physical education in 1969. His dissertation dealt with the reaction times of football linemen.
In 1971 Paige moved to Houston to take a job as head coach and athletic director at Texas Southern University. He accepted the job on the condition, unusual for a football coach, that he also be hired as a faculty member. Paige regarded his decision to insist on that condition as an important turning point in his career. “Otherwise,” he told the Houston Chronicle, “I might have been still chasing footballs.” Indeed, his academic credentials enabled him to continue moving up through the university hierarchy. Paige coached the football team for only four years and eventually he became dean of Texas Southern’s school of education. Putting down deeper and deeper roots in Houston, he won a seat on the city’s school board in 1989.
A natural-born politician, Paige crossed party lines to pick up support from black Democrats and quickly emerged as one of the board’s prime movers and shakers. He spearheaded a plan to decentralize Houston’s top-heavy school administration structure and to measure schools’ performance against the bottom line of student achievement. When two successive superintendents failed to implement the reforms pushed by Paige’s bloc, the board startled observers by appointing Paige himself as superintendent in 1994.
The closed-door deal stirred controversy, especially in Houston’s large Hispanic community, and three Hispanic board members unsuccessfully filed suit under the state’s Open Meetings Act to block his selection. Paige’s first years as superintendent were marked by dissension in other quarters as well: he wrangled with teachers’ unions, struggled with corruption in the district’s alternative education program, faced a financial audit conducted by Texas state comptroller John Sharp, and fended off questions about the district’s high dropout rate—which some blamed on the strict testing requirements Paige had imposed. Houston voters registered their dissatisfaction by rejecting a $390 million bond issue that Paige had championed.
Paige, however, showed grace under pressure. School board president Paula Arnold told that Houston Chronicle that “Rod, from absolutely the moment of that defeat, said, like an old football coach, ’We learn from our mistakes, and we’ll win the next time.’” Paige moved to implement many of the state auditors’ suggestions, countered his critics by arguing that the district’s dropout rate had more to do with the region’s booming economy than with school testing, and won teachers’ respect with a round of well-publicized firings of incompetent school principals. In 1998 voters passed a bond issue that was nearly double the size of the one rejected three years earlier.
After that, Paige began to reap the rewards of the reforms he had implemented, and Houston schools recorded a series of successes that gained national attention. The percentage of the district’s students who passed Texas state achievement tests rose sharply, from 37% in 1995 to 73% in 2000, as violent incidents in Houston schools dropped by 20 percent. Starting teachers’ salaries rose from an average of $24,000 in 1994 to $33,750 in 2001, and the city’s list of low-performing schools contracted dramatically. In 1999 Paige was recognized by the Council for Great City Schools, an urban-education group, as one of the top two educators in the United States.
During his tenure in Houston, Paige worked closely with fellow Republican George W. Bush, who was then governor of Texas. Paige favored several of the education proposals Bush advanced during the 2000 campaign for the U.S. presidency, including school choice and vouchers that would provide financial support for parents who wished to send their children to private schools. When Bush emerged victorious in the court battles that followed that disputed election, he nominated Paige for the cabinet position of Secretary of Education. Unlike some of Bush’s appointments, Paige’s won bipartisan support. Liberal Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland was quoted as saying in Time that she was “really impressed” by Paige’s accomplishments in Houston.
Early in Bush’s term, Paige championed Bush’s voucher plan, which would allow parents of students in underperforming districts to select private schools if their local public school did not improve within a specified period of time. Noted for a management style that draws on the results-oriented language of corporate America, Paige moved to streamline the bloated Department of Education bureaucracy. The political viability of vouchers seemed to decline with the Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate in the spring of 2001, but Paige began to speak out on other issues as well, addressing the rash of shootings that had plagued the nation’s schools. “Probably the biggest problem we have is the amount of alienation and rage in our young people,” he told the CBS News program Face the Nation, as quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By
the summer of 2001, Paige had emerged as a hands-on manager of the American educational system.
Houston Chronicle, January 20, 2001, p. A29; April 19, 2001, p. Houston-1.
Jet, January 22, 2001, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2000, p. A20; April 21, 2001, p. A15.
Newsweek, February 5, 2001, p. 26.
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 1, 2001, p. A5.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 12, 2001, p. A2.
Time, February 12, 2001, p. 75.
Additional material for this profile was obtained online at the Biography Resource Center Online, Gale, 2001.
—James M. Manheim
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