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Public Schooling

Rod Paige learns the hard way.

It's not often that a high-ranking administration official tells a reporter that another high-ranking administration official is essentially dead weight. It's even rarer that such assertions are made on the record. But that's pretty much what happened in early June, when top White House education aide Sandy Kress, during an interview with The Wall Street Journal, described Education Secretary Rod Paige as "a little bit on the periphery."

Even more remarkably, Kress was almost certainly guilty of understatement. In recent weeks, as the administration's education initiative has made its way through Congress, Paige has been conspicuously absent. Since March he has met with only a handful of members of Congress. Hill staffers can't explain what his education vision is--or if he ever had one. And at times Paige has seemed painfully unaware of both the policy and the politics behind the massive education reform effort he ostensibly oversees. In any administration, the blatant marginalization of the only African American domestic Cabinet secretary would be noteworthy. In an administration that loudly trumpets its commitment to Cabinet government and racial diversity, it's stunning.

The first sign that Paige was out of the White House education loop, say close observers, was his disastrous interview with Cokie Roberts on ABC's "This Week" the day after the inauguration. To Roberts's repeated inquiries about whether the White House education agenda included vouchers, Paige mustered only a tentative "I think that's what it includes" before retreating into platitudes about "dialogue," "discussion," and "listening." True, Bush demands scrupulous circumspection from his surrogates. But that usually leaves the impression that they know more than they're saying. Paige just sounded confused. "It was painful to watch," recalls one education-policy expert. "[It seemed as if] nobody had given this guy basic media training."

Paige's grasp of administration policy hadn't improved much when the White House sent him to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee four weeks later. According to those who watched the exchange, Paige stumbled through a virtual repetition of his "This Week" performance. Each time Democratic Senator Patty Murray demanded to know how the administration's testing proposal would be funded, for example, Paige ventured only that "[w]e will include money in the budget." Says one Democratic Senate staffer, "It didn't seem like he'd been well briefed."

As the administration began pushing its education proposal through Congress, Paige found himself quickly cut out of the action. As with the tax cut, the White House plan was to negotiate with just enough moderate Democrats to win a majority in the Senate. But the Bushies could ignore education committee Chairman Jim Jeffords and ranking member Ted Kennedy--neither of whom were initially involved in those negotiations--for only so long. Aware that Kennedy could complicate the process by demanding hearings, the White House sought to convince him he was a key player without actually dealing with him. And one of the administration's methods, say Democratic Senate aides, was to use Paige as a decoy.

During the first month of education negotiations, the White House dispatched Paige to meet with Jeffords and Kennedy. "To an outsider coming to Washington, one would think the action would be with the chairman and ranking member," says one Democratic aide about Paige's expectations for those meetings. But when Kennedy discovered that the White House was doing its real negotiating with the moderates, he faced a choice: He could either compromise on some of the administration's favored provisions--testing and greater flexibility for states--or forget about influencing the final bill. In choosing the former, he effectively ended Paige's direct involvement, superficial as it had been.

When it came time to write the bill's final language, Paige was nowhere to be found. "People realized that [Paige] was outside of the process," says one House Republican staffer. "I don't think anyone thought that he was really involved." Instead, the White House relied almost exclusively on Kress, his deputy Sarah Youssef, White House domestic policy adviser Margaret LaMontagne, Cheney education aide Nina Rees, and congressional liaison Townsend McNitt. The Education Department's only significant representation was a team of lawyers who trailed Kress and churned out drafts of legislation as he requested it--the "If we did this, what would it do?" work, as one Democratic aide puts it.

Some administration officials insist none of this matters since Paige's chief responsibility is to sell the president's broad proposals to the public and to Congress. But by excluding him from the bill's crafting, the White House has made it virtually impossible for Paige to be a credible public spokesman. Earlier this year, while Paige was out making the case against additional education spending, the administration caved to congressional demands for exactly that. The following month, unaware that the administration had abandoned its school-choice proposal, Paige ventured into decidedly hostile territory, the National School Boards Association, to gin up support for vouchers. Then, in late May, after Robert Novak penned an online column accusing Paige of disliking the president's education bill, Paige personally called the conservative columnist to complain. Tactically, the move was less than inspired. Rather than be cowed, Novak simply disclosed their conversation in the subsequent print version of his column, reemphasizing the point and publicly embarrassing Paige.

Last week there was even speculation that Paige was contemplating retirement. Paige denied the rumors at a press conference on Friday, and White House officials insist he is settling in (Paige just bought a house in Washington). Likewise, independent education experts say Paige could play a larger role on future issues like special education and the reauthorization of the federal Office of Educational Research and Improvement, topics on which the president and those close to him have less well-defined ideas. And, statutorily at least, implementation of the education bill falls under Paige's jurisdiction.

But that won't change the fact that Paige's lack of involvement in the recent education bill is almost unprecedented. When the Clinton administration generated the previous version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1994, the effort emanated largely from the Department of Education. That the department has been so irrelevant this time around--and the White House so prominent--has taken many observers by surprise. "I was just in a meeting with [the Congressional Research Service] this morning, and the guy from CRS said this was the first time he's ever seen this," says one House Democratic aide.

In January, while facing accusations that his multicultural appointments amounted to tokenism, Bush vowed to rely more heavily on his Cabinet and administration "principals" than had any recent president. And to some extent he has. Secretary of State Colin Powell is by all accounts a key foreign policy player. Ditto for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. But it's on domestic policy that a diverse Cabinet is supposed to really matter. And domestic policy has remained firmly in the hands of a small, overwhelmingly white group of close Bush aides.

The irony is that Paige didn't have to be a token appointment--he is, after all, a successful urban school reformer in an administration ostensibly dedicated to raising levels of achievement among poor and minority children. But from the beginning the White House seems to have expected him to be the education plan's public face--and nothing more. "The big problem is that Paige did have a lot to offer, but he didn't get a chance to offer it," says the House Democratic aide. Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations.