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First black nomination for top job hailed

UNITED STATES

PRESIDENT-elect George W Bush's selection of a black urban schools superintendent as education secretary has been greeted enthusiastically as a signal that long-suffering city schools will be a priority for the Republican administration.

Rod Paige, a former university football coach and superintendent of schools in Mr Bush's home state of Texas, is both the first black and the first head of a local district to be nominated for the job.

"Like many of our members who work in urban classrooms every day, Rod Paige has seen first-hand the challenges they face," said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union.

Educators said Dr Paige - who has a PhD in PE - understood the needs of urban school districts which cater for 15 per cent of the nation's students in some of the harshest conditions in the country. Under Mr Paige, the Houston school district, which is the country's seventh-largest, enjoyed an increase in academic performance and test scores. Ninety per cent of the students in the district are from minority races.

He has emphasised reading through the use of "phonics", something on which Mr Bush said he wanted to make nationwide effort. Houston students' scores on the state's test of academic skills have risen dramatically from a pass rate of 37 per cent to 73 per cent since 1994.

Some critics claim that Houston has driven up test scores - but not performance - by excessive drilling of students. But Bill Goodling, congressional education committee chairman, says: "If he can encourage the same gains in centre-city America all across the nation, he will have served this country well."

Dr Paige himself was vague when pressed about his plans.

President-elect Bush has continued working on the school proposals he intends to introduce as soon as he is sworn in. These include more flexibility for local districts in the way they use federal cash, increased student testing, and more money for reading programmes and college scholarships for low-income students.

Owing to his party's slim majority, he seems unlikely to press forward on his controversial campaign promise to furnish government vouchers for private-school tuition.

Dr Paige was named superintendent of the year last year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators, and Urban Educator of the Year by the Council of Great City Schools.

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