When it came to paying tax dollars to a minority journalist to promote NCLB, former U.S. Education Secretary and HISD Superintendent Paige was hands-on.
When Rod Paige was secretary of education, some critics characterized him as a frontman hawking administration policies crafted by his successor, fellow Texan Margaret Spellings, then a policy adviser to President Bush. But Paige seems to have been the guiding force behind the decision to pay commentator Armstrong Williams and his public relations firm $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Education Department's inspector general reported that Paige and his aides were the key supporters of a botched plan to get favorable coverage in the minority community. When revealed by USA Today, the pact spurred well-deserved criticism that bureaucrats were buying journalists.
"There are moments in life where one is left mouth agape at how decision-makers can show a lack of critical judgment," Secretary Spellings declared. "This is one of them."
The report did not say whether the Williams deal constituted illegal expenditure of tax dollars for propaganda. As Spellings made clear, Paige and his inner circle paid for some advertisements never made and for others that did not reach the parents of students enrolled in low-performing schools.
In addition, Spellings noted, the contract was so sloppily written it allowed the interpretation that the government was purchasing Armstrong's endorsement of its education policy. In fact, the arrangement required Williams' public relations firm, a subcontractor in the deal, to produce ads featuring Paige. The contract required Williams to have Paige and other department officials as studio guests on his radio and television programs.
While Williams denied that the money influenced his commentary, he issued an apology for poor judgment in accepting the funds. He and Paige should have realized that putting supposedly independent commentators on the government payroll was unacceptable on its face.
The inspector general's report indicated several of Paige's subordinates complained to both Paige and the White House, questioning the contract's cost, its effectiveness and Williams' conflict of interest. Their protests went unheeded.
To her credit, Spellings said the contract was wrong and promised to fix the management problems that led to the Armstrong Williams fiasco. According to Paige's successor, "It is the secretary who must be careful about and is ultimately responsible for the signals that his/her office sends."
It's unfortunate that one of her predecessor's few original initiatives in office turned out to be so ill-considered. Perhaps it's a good thing Paige wasn't a more assertive secretary.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES