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The "People's Education Secretary"

The professional wrestler known as The Rock likes to call himself the "people's champion" because he considers himself to be popular even if he is not currently holding the title. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige could call himself the "people's education secretary" judging by his recent moves.

Paige, who has made it a habit to visit schools and districts during his brief tenure, recently began a 25-city tour of the nation's schools in an effort to drum up support for the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the cornerstone of President Bush's education agenda.

Signed into law at the beginning of the year, the plan has been met with criticism for its overuse of standardized testing and its lack of federal funding to help states reach certain education goals. Formerly the school superintendent of Houston, and honored last year as the Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, Paige is hoping the tour will drown out the criticisms and convince educators and communities that the administration will be diligent in its pursuit of improved education in the U.S.

To help drive home these points, Paige has trotted out professional football players and U.S. Olympic athletes among others at some events to draw out a skeptical media. During the tour, Paige has concentrated on presenting the plan and its merits, being careful to avoid any confrontations. But whether the tour is working among the people, the criticisms continue.

At various times during its gestation, AASA, the country's largest teachers union-the National Education Association, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals all came out against the bill for its increased use of standardized tests. In fact, representatives from the groups were all shut out of strategy sessions over the specific language in the bill, even though the groups initially had been consulted.

"We came out early with concerns about the bill, partly because the whole thing felt like it was done in a dark, back room by only a few people. There was a lot of secrecy," says Paul Houston, head of the AASA.

There are those in the education community who support the bill. The American Federation of Teachers and the Council of Great City Schools are among those to support the bill, as is the International Reading Association, which praises the emphasis the bill places on early reading education.

Houston finds the bill to be overly intrusive into states' ability to educate its own students by altering the formula under which education has been run in the country. Not only does the plan significantly ratchet up the amount of testing that will take place over the next several years, but the federal government now has more say in how states spent their education dollars. Roughly 93 percent of all education spending is funded by the states; the federal government funds about 7 percent. "Education has always been state run, not federally run," Houston says.

Houston is not universally opposed to standardized testing, but he feels the Bush plan overemphasizes it. Part of the problem is that the feds used Texas-President Bush's home state-as the model for the education plan, but any improvements in education made in that state were done during a 12-year period, not a three-year period that the administration is under, Houston says.

Joining the AASA in its criticism of the plan is Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a potential presidential candidate who has said his state may decide to reject federal education money as opposed to ripping up the state's current education plan to meet the goals of the Bush plan.

In addition, the AASA says that the act's goal of having qualified teachers in every classroom by 2005 is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to realize because the country is already mired in a teacher shortage, especially in poorer communities.

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