(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?
RP: First of all, let me say clearly that Gov. Romney, as far as I know, has not laid out any specific cuts in education spending.
RP: Laying out his own specific cuts for education spending is a different situation. I support the idea of making sure that spending is carefully targeted and meeting the needs that it's targeted to meet. Gov. Romney's saying that he wants to make sure that the dollars we are spending are getting the job done, and those dollars that are not should be eliminated.
TR: One specific proposal that Gov. Romney has made is putting federal education funds toward vouchers for low-income students to attend the school of their family's choice. How viable do you think this plan is for all low-income families who would want to do this?
RP: It is absolutely viable, and school choice is a necessary condition for effective school operations. I think it is [dubious] to tie a child to a school that's not performing well. That is not promoting the child's attention; that is promoting detention. Gov. Romney's idea of increasing school choice for parents should be applauded, especially for African-American families who are finding [an approximately] 25-point achievement gap relative to their Anglo counterparts all over the United States.
Clearly we have a capacity problem that we would need to work on. We want to make sure we find places where children can go that would improve their circumstances, but this is a step in the right direction.
TR: Meanwhile, what proposals do you have for helping low-performing public schools?
RP: The biggest challenge is structural capacity — having more great teachers. Although we have many great teachers, we need more. The number one way that we can improve our educational performance is to strengthen the structural capacity. If I had the whole [education secretary] thing to do over again, that is one area I would be much more forceful in. The Title II part of No Child Left Behind (pdf) should be strengthened to make sure that we provide maximum support for teachers.
TR: While visiting a Philadelphia charter school last month, Gov. Romney asserted that class size has no correlation with student performance, a point on which the school's teachers disagreed. Do you feel that the research showing that class size doesn't matter is definitive?
RP: Class size is important, but it is not the solution that it's been made out to be. If you're given a choice between a great teacher with a class size of 28 and a mediocre teacher with a class size of 20, what choice would you take? You would take the choice of the better teacher. In fact, here's a quote from your education secretary, Arne Duncan: "Class size is a sacred cow, and I think we need to take it on." He's saying almost exactly what I'm saying.
Although the teacher would be even greater in a smaller class, it is not the silver bullet that it is being promoted to be by many who would like to increase the number of teachers so they can pay more union dues. It's primarily the teacher unions that have promoted this idea.
TR: You've been very critical of teachers unions. How do you think they are blocking the education reforms you would like to see?
RP: I think that the teacher unions represent one of the most damaging burdens on reform initiatives to improve schools. They are one of the most powerful political entities in all of the education space. The National Education Association alone, the largest of the teacher organizations, contributes more to political campaigns than any other organization in the United States of America. More than Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart and Goldman Sachs combined.
In many cases, school boards represent the entities that make school policy and negotiate issues around teacher salaries and teacher employment and termination. Teacher organizations are very influential in determining who the people sitting on these boards are, so you can see how they have unusual control over school operations.
TR: Do you propose limiting that influence in any particular way?
RP: I recognize the right for them to be involved politically, and I'm not suggesting that teachers unions go away. Unions serve a purpose. My uncle was a member of the Pullman porters' union, and I know all about how important that union was in developing the African-American middle class.
There's an important role for teachers unions, but they have grown to a point where they are too powerful. And that is a detriment to school reform. School reform is not going to happen, because they are not going to support anything that significantly changes the status quo. They are only going to support the marginal issues.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.