A Texas-Sized Scandal


By Leonard Fein

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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All eyes are fixed on — or averted from? — the ongoing debacle in California. But at least there, it’s all out in the open, for everyone to see and shake their heads at. Ever the contrarian, I have Texas on my mind even more than California.

Texas in general, Houston in particular. The “in general” part has to do with the hide-and-seek capers of the Democrats in the Texas Senate. Once upon a time, it was illegal to cross state boundaries in order to perform an immoral act — actually, the terms of the Mann Act, still in force, provide criminal penalties for anyone who transports a woman or girl across state boundaries “for purposes of prostitution, debauchery, or any other immoral act.” Now the Democratic senators of Texas are crossing state boundaries in order to prevent rather than commit an immoral act — to wit, Tom DeLay’s plan for radical redistricting of Texas congressional districts. By going out of state, the senators deny the Senate the quorum it requires for such redistricting. For serious tomfoolery, this ongoing saga runs a close second to the California recall.

But it’s Houston that is the more telling, with what one might term the Enrod Affair. The title derives from blending the well-known matter of Enron to the less well-known matter of Rod Paige, our genial secretary of education. Some readers will recall an ephemeral flap involving Paige back in April, when he was quite widely criticized for apparently having expressed a preference for “Christian education.” Coming from the chief education officer of the United States, this was a very disturbing sentiment.

It quickly developed, however, that an overly zealous reporter had somewhat distorted Paige’s words, delivered at the Southern Baptist Convention in response to a question asking which kind of university — secular or Christian — offers “the best deal.” Whereas the reporter’s story had Paige saying that he’d “prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community,” his actual remarks, released by the Baptist Press, were to the effect that both kinds of universities have “real strong points… but… all things being equal, I’d prefer to have a child in a school where there’s a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with Christian communities, so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have a strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally.”

Grammar aside, the difference between the two statements is rather subtle, but the transcript and a Paige letter of clarification to the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, were sufficient to cause the ADL to apologize for its initial criticism of the secretary.

There was, however, another and largely ignored thought expressed in Paige’s remarks that was at least as unnerving as the one that caused the brief controversy: “The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system. In a religious environment, the value system is set. That’s not the case in a public school, where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values.” So much for diversity; so much for pluralism.

And now it turns out that pluralism with all its benefits and all its ambiguities is very far from Paige’s approach to life — and to education. There’s a scandal under way in Houston, the nation’s seventh-largest public school district, the district of which Rod Paige was for seven years superintendent until brought to Washington by the Bush administration.

Remember the “Texas miracle,” the alleged dramatic improvement in the performance of Texas public schools when George W. Bush was governor of Texas? At least part of that miracle was the extraordinarily low dropout rate in the Houston public schools, a rate that some schools report as zero, and others at about 1%. (The rate in most urban high schools across the country ranges from 20% to 40%.)

Well, it seems that in the name of accountability, Rod Paige introduced a remarkable administrative innovation during his years as superintendent of schools: He did away with tenure for principals and instead had the principals sign one-year contracts that permitted them to be dismissed “without cause” and without the right to a hearing. And it was and is made plain to the principals that their retention depends in part on their reaching certain target numbers in regard to dropouts. The latest such, from last January (Paige, of course, was no longer in charge), reads, “The district-wide annual dropout rate will decrease from 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent.” Fail to make the numbers and you may be out of a job; make the numbers, and you’re eligible for a $5,000 bonus, unless you’re a district administrator, in which case you can “earn” a $20,000 bonus.

Result? Principals — some of them, anyway — lie. Readily available data (go to www.tea.state.tx.us) show the number of students enrolled at each grade level. In some schools that report a dropout rate of 1% or 2%, the size of the freshman class is very substantially greater than the size of the senior class. In one instance, there are three times as many freshmen as there are seniors — this in a school with a reported dropout rate of 1.5%.

Deep in the heart of Texas, there’s mendacity, not miracle, mendacity both private and public. And altogether too much of it has made its way to Washington.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001)

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