Hail to the Chiefs

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Terry Abbott, the masterful public relations guru for Rod Paige when Paige was superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, resigned his position last January, took a pay cut and joined his former boss as chief of staff at the Department of Education.

Many sources credited Abbott with presenting educators and news media around the country with such a wonderfully buffed up image of Paige that he was easily propelled not only into the top education spot but to top honors in awards given by educators. Abbott, always handy with a fax, carefully noted every good deed that Paige did, every positive mention of him ever made, and sent it around and about. New Superintendent Kaye Stripling's press, now managed by Heather Browne, pales mightily in comparison.

Alas, Paige and Abbott, two men with interests in the promotion of Paige for their mutual benefit, were not meant to march off into the sunset Lone Ranger and Tonto-style after all. Late last month, Paige announced that Abbott would no longer be his chief of staff. Instead, Abbott "will be returning to his area of special expertise -- communications and public and media affairs."

Even more telling was the next line: "He has accepted a position in public affairs at another federal agency to be announce shortly." And Paige thanks Abbott for his work "to assist making the transition to the Department of Education."

Only thing is, when Abbott's education job was announced, there was no mention of transition work, just that he would be chief of staff.

More discouraging is the news of Abbott's replacement: John Danielson. The Houston native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin is returning to Washington after an eight-year absence (he was a former special assistant to then-education secretary Lamar Alexander).

During that D.C. time-out, Danielson stayed busy, helping to found Community Education Partners. The business has extensive ties to high-ranking Tennessee Republican Party officials and operates private alternative schools for at-risk kids sent to it by the public schools. In fact, he only left as CEP vice president of marketing at the very end of September; starting his new U.S. government job October 1.

Houston has two CEP campuses, Ferndale and Beechnut, both started during Paige's superintendency. Paige frequently applauded the HISD-CEP partnership and predicted CEP would soon move to the national stage. Increasing complaints about CEP from former employees, parents and students did nothing to shake Paige's support.

CEP is billed as a structured, self-paced solution for kids who need help getting back on track, but its critics say it is a system where students are isolated and assigned to computer terminals (which have a habit of breaking down) with minimal instruction from real human beings. A major objection has been to the 180-day sentence -- no matter what the offense -- that takes a student out of his home school for at minimum a school year.

Under a loophole in Texas law, instructors don't have to be certified teachers. Students speak of frequent fights and unqualified "teachers" who abuse them verbally and sometimes physically. All these complaints have pretty much been ignored by the Houston School Board, which has been locked into a $17.9 million CEP contract. HISD defends the contract as a way of keeping its regular schools safe while not giving up on the troubled youths it sends to CEP.

The Dallas School Board got very involved with the complaints it had received about its CEP contract, although HISD trustees have figured out a way to insulate themselves. According to spokeswoman Browne, trustees voted in August to have Superintendent Stripling handle the contract negotiations. Those were expected to be finalized sometime this week with no board review. Browne said last week she couldn't talk about any changes because contract details were still being worked out.

But CEP can count on a lot more than just an insulating disinterest from HISD trustees. It has a true friend in the form of trustee Larry Marshall, who makes $72,000 a year from Community Education Partners for a minimal amount of "consulting" work. Marshall says he does not vote on CEP business with the district, but on at least one occasion he was part of an executive board session to discuss a suit filed by parents of two students who were sent to CEP.

Even if Marshall is defeated in his District 9 re-election run -- his challengers are Ted Weisgal, owner-founder of Leisure Learning Unlimited, and little-known Bennie Swain -- it appears CEP is hedging its bets.

As it turns out, a call to CEP's Beechnut campus will get Swain, a math teacher, to the phone. Swain says he's running because he has four children and changes need to be made. It is doubtful that Swain, a four-year CEP employee, has CEP's highly profitable HISD contract in mind when he talks about changes, though.

It's no secret that Paige's image in Washington could use some repolishing. Noticeably left out of the loop on early education announcements made by President Bush, Paige has seemed almost a nonentity there. His largest national media coverage involved his call for schoolchildren nationwide to show patriotism by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance together.

It's hard to say much about just what Danielson will be doing. At the Department of Education, spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg said she would see if Danielson had time for a quick interview. That never happened, and repeated follow-up calls went unanswered. Kozberg also said she was still not able to reveal where Abbott had gone because the federal agency employing him has not made a formal announcement yet. She did promise the job was "high-ranking."

On the strength of his résumé, though, Danielson may be just the person to turn things around for Paige. He knows Washington and the Department of Education. He's apparently a master of manipulation as CEP continues its march across the country despite cries of concern and danger along the way. By comparison, successfully stage-managing a secretary of education's public image should be a walk in the park.

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