Meet Romney’s Top Education Adviser

Former Education Secretary Rod Paige takes on federal spending, teachers unions and school-voucher critics.

Sandy Schaeffer/Getty Images
Sandy Schaeffer/Getty Images

(The Root) — Before we start our interview, Rod Paige wants to be clear. “I’m not speaking for the Romney campaign,” he said. “I’m speaking for me.”

As Mitt Romney’s special adviser on education, Paige nonetheless offers, in addition to his own views, insights on the presidential candidate’s education agenda. The former secretary of education under President George W. Bush, born in 1933 in segregated Mississippi, Paige was named to the Romney campaign last month. He has also served as a teacher, dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University and superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.

His disclaimer, perhaps, comes on account of his reputation for being plainspoken. In 2004, for example, Paige likened the National Education Association, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, to “a terrorist organization” (he later recanted). He was also mired in a scandal when officials of Houston’s school system were found to have underreported dropout numbers during his tenure as superintendent.

In Paige’s new role in the Romney campaign, he is helping the former Massachusetts governor shape a national education policy. “The current administration sees the solution to almost every problem as more federal mandates, more federal funding and more federal control,” he told The Root, commenting on the primary difference between the two candidates’ approaches. “Gov. Romney is [calling for] the opposite of that.”

During the interview, Paige further explained why he thinks school vouchers are not only viable but necessary, warned that teachers unions are “too powerful” and identified the biggest challenge for low-performing public schools.

The Root: Gov. Romney has said that, if elected, he will either consolidate the Department of Education with another agency or otherwise significantly reduce it. As the former secretary of education, what are your thoughts on that?

Rod Paige: My view of it is that Gov. Romney wants the Department of Education to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. He’s stated that he does see a federal role in education — and that’s different from some of the people who have been calling for the Department of Education to go away. So for a new leader to come in and say he wants to take a look at the agency and make sure that it is an efficient organization, operating at a cost that is effective, I think is entirely appropriate.

TR: Gov. Romney’s desire to cut education spending has been criticized by Democratic opponents who argue that this funding is critical for low-income students and public schools. Do you agree that education is an area from which spending can be cut?