Secretary of Education Rod Paige on Faith and Schools

On March 7, the Baptist Press conducted an interview with the U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige. Here is the full-text of the interview, reprinted with permission from the Baptist Press.

Baptist Press (BP): Before we get started, Do you still maintain membership at your Baptist church back in Houston?

Secretary Paige (SP): Yes, I’m a member of the Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston.

(BP): Well, we always like to let our Baptist folks know we have Baptists in Washington.

(SP): Yeah, and when I’m here in D.C., I attend the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria. Va.,

(BP): We wanted to talk to you this afternoon about the state of education in America. And. specifically, we wanted to ask your comments on possibly the benefits or the negative aspects of Christian education in private schools. So I guess let’s start off just by your giving us your general impression of the state of education in America.

(SP): I think our educational system is underperforming and leaving large numbers of children behind, especially minority children, inner-city children, and some rural children. Some of it tracks along the lines of our family structures, especially those families that have some vulnerabilities or weaknesses that education for that child is, I think, concurrently weakened as well. And we need to find a way. And I think we have found a way to make sure that none of these children are left behind either. And the President’s vision for that is called "No Child Left Behind." And that bill passed the Congress and was signed last year. We’re one year into it now and I think that it is going to be a savior for a lot of kids who are otherwise left behind.

(BP): Secretary, we’ve seen a number of parents pulling their children out of public schools and home-schooling them or sending them to private schools. Can you see any justification of why they’re doing that?

(SP): Absolutely. No child should be tied to a school that’s failing them. It is, I think one of the most grievous sins that we have in the United States as far as school is concerned: insisting that a child attends a school that’s failing them. A child should be free to-a parent should be free to select a school that best meets that child’s needs, whether it’s private or whether it’s public or whether it’s a cyber-school or whether it’s home schooling or whatever. There will be a complex matrix of educational delivery systems, which includes all these different delivery systems. And private schools have a wonderful track record. There’s a vast body of research from the University of Chicago and elsewhere that indicate that private schools, especially religious Catholic schools, offer a high-quality education to some low-income students in inner-city settings. So it’s a wonderful part of our educational system.

(BP): But why do you think adversaries of the administration are against letting students go to these types of schools?

(SP): Well, I think most people in this administration would be absolutely for students going to-having choices to-parents having wide options and choices to make decisions for their child’s school site. The politics of it is what interferes with it. And we need the kind of political support in order to get that accomplished through the federal system that we operate in. I don’t think it’s that we don’t want to have that. We do want to have it.

(BP): The Bush Administration has been very open and supportive of having, you know, more religion in the schools or at least having the acceptance of religion in the schools. Tell me, what is your personal opinion of that? Do you think that we should be embracing, you know, religious values in our schools?

(SP): Absolutely. I think that religious values are wonderful values that we should embrace in our daily lives wherever we are, and this would [unintelligible] kids are in school. But I think it’s even more important that they embrace these values in homes.

(BP): Uh-huh. The results of that, what do you think the results of that would be if people did that?

(SP): I think we’d have a much calmer and more gentle and compassionate society if people did that.

(BP): We have seen also an increase-we’ve noticed that a lot of the states are having to cut spending for colleges and universities and yet, at the same time, a number of, you know, private colleges and universities are seeking an increase and getting it. Any comment on that?

(SP): Well, I think giving for large parts of our population, especially those involved in strong religious beliefs, [is] be a core part of their system and a core part of their values. And the fact that we’re experiencing some economic turndowns now won’t diminish that. So that’s happening just as I would expect it.

(BP): Well, on that note, what are your thoughts on the 9th Circuit Court out in San Francisco that made the decision about the Pledge of Allegiance’s being unconstitutional?

(SP): You know, I think that is really one of the worst decisions we could imagine. It’s frightening to think that we have a high court like that that thinks like that.

(BP): Why do you think there’s such animosity towards religion and God in general in the schools and in the educational system?

(SP): It’s a real puzzle to me. My upbringing just shields from me from even thinking that way, so I can’t imagine why, what’s at the root of all of that.

(BP): But at the same time, do you think-is there anything that can be done in the future to protect the rights of Christian students and religious students in the public school systems?

(SP): Well, I think there’s going to be some great debates about it and I think those debates are going to end up in the courts. And I think that the direction that we see going now offers little hope for us. I’m especially appreciative and interested in what happened with the Supreme Court in the voucher case in Cleveland, which went in a direction, I think that’s going to foster a growth of our students’ ability to get into schools, and in religious schools as well as secular schools.

(BP): What do you think one of the chief benefits of a religious education is?

(SP): the strong value system support. Values go right along with that. In some of our other schools, we don’t have quite as strong a push for values as I think we would need. In a religious environment the value system is pretty well set and supported. In public schools there are so many different kids from different kinds of experiences that it’s very hard to get consensus around some core values.

(BP): We’ve heard a lot about faith in the Bush Administration, specifically with the President and how he is just using Scripture, quoting Scripture. What is your opinion as a member of the administration to have a President who seems to be fairly well in tune with his spiritual beliefs?

(SP): America’s very fortunate to have a man like George W. Bush in the presidency right now, because I think this is a period in time of our history where faith is very important. His faith, that powers him and helps him make decisions and shields him from the slings and arrows that you get when you take courageous decisions. a person who makes decisions based on their faith and what it is what they see to be right rather than putting their finger in the wind to see which way the wind is blowing.

(BP): Uh-huh. So it’s a-I mean, based upon your personal experiences, that’s a genuine thing.

(SP): What you see in the President is what’s really there. The President is one of the most authentic human beings I’ve ever had a chance to meet. I mean, there’s no phoniness about him whatsoever. What he says is what you can count on. It’s how he lives his life. He governs in that same way.

(BP): How would you respond- you know there are critics of the government. One of the French officials, their complaint was that he was too religious. And even the Democrats have said that the President has too much religion or religiosity. What would you say to those critics?

(SP): I would offer them my prayers.

(BP): Now how about yourself? You’re a man of faith as well. Faith-how do you integrate your faith in what you do at the Department of Education?

(SP): Well, my faith is not a separate part of me. It can’t be separated from the rest of the way I live my life. I know clearly that where I am and what I do is not so much a product of my work, but a product of God’s grace. And I know if it had been left up to me I would have probably made a big boo-boo out of it some time ago. So I understand what powers me and my parents made sure that that was deeply engrained, and it’s never been I’ve never been able to separate myself from it.

(BP): Tell me about your daily walk with the Lord. Do you have a quiet time or a prayer time by yourself or with your family?

(SP): Absolutely. I begin the day that way. When I get up in the morning and get my coffee I then prepare myself for today, that day. And I begin to prepare myself that day by my Scripture lessons, readings, and my prayer, the whole thing that I call devotion. That takes about 20 to 25 minutes in the morning. And this is the very first thing to do. I never allow anything else to interfere with that. And I start each day with that, even the Sundays when I’m preparing to go to church.

(BP): Wow. What are you studying right now, anything in particular that maybe the Lord is teaching you or speaking to you about?

(SP): Well, you know, strangely, when I do have devotion in the morning I feel that I’m being spoken to. And a lot of the issues that I have I find decisions, or I’ll find solutions come to me during that period of time. At first I used to worry about that and feel that I was unfocused when I’m reading Scripture or just before I begin prayer. But I’m beginning now to feel at home with that, because as I read Scripture not only am I focusing on the Scripture, but sometimes I’m beginning to see more clearly paths that I should take or solutions to problems that have been bugging me for some time. So it’s not only a good time for what I learn from the Scriptures, but just that quiet time to be by myself and focus on some of these issues is very important.

(BP): As the leader of the nation’s education system, how do you not let it all get to you? It’s a huge responsibility you have.

(SP): Well, I think faith is a good response to that. But I don’t think my job is to solve all education problems in the world My job is to work towards the right solutions and make sure I conduct myself properly. It’s kind of like the battle’s never won, only fought well.

(BP): What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the education system coming up in the next years?

(SP): I think it is getting the idea across that every child has value and that every child can learn and that every child deserves our very best and most intense effort in ensuring that they have the greatest opportunity for education. It is believing in each child. And one of the most depressing things is to find systems where that belief is not strong or they don’t believe in the children. Sometimes they have low expectations for certain children. And overcoming these low expectations for certain children is probably our greatest challenge in the future.

(BP): Wow. Now today, you had an announcement with Tom Ridge about terrorism and protecting students, so would you care to comment on anything of that nature?

(SP): Well, I think that safety is our first job. When I served as superintendent of schools in Houston, our core values-the first very core value was safety above all else. And now our responsibility with safety has expanded. At one time, we had to worry about situations like the Columbine experience, but now we’ve got to add to that the possibility of international terrorism and that just broadens our responsibility. And so we’re working with the Homeland Security people and with other people throughout the world to see what we can learn from them in order to make sure that we’re providing the very best leadership we can for school safety.

(BP): One final question, Mr. Secretary, we’re hearing a lot in the Christian colleges and universities about Christian world view education. Do you have any comment on that, what you think about that?

(SP): No, I really haven’t-I’ve not heard enough about that to formulate a view, so I probably need to take a pass on that one.

(BP): Given the choice between private and Christian – or private and public universities, what do you think-who do you think has the best deal?

(SP): That’s a judgment, too, that would vary because each of them have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities. But, you know, all things being equal, I would 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 the Christian communities, and so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally.

(BP): Yes, sir. Any particular Bible verse-this is my last question. Any particular Bible verse that has really just kind of stuck out for you maybe as a life verse?

(SP): Well, the one that I read quite a bit is the 91st Psalm. And I do that because that was my mother’s favorite psalm. And so quite often I go back and read it because that connects me to her.

(BP): Yes, sir. Well, Mr. Secretary, I certainly appreciate your time this afternoon. And I know our readers are going to appreciate hearing it and are certainly praying for you that you continue your ministry and work there in Washington.

(SP): Thank you so much for your prayers and for giving me this opportunity.

(BP): Yes, sir. Thank you.

(SP): Thank you.