THE LIST OF PEOPLE who ought to be insulted by Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige's comments to the Baptist Press this week does not end with staunch secularists. It should also include public school teachers and students and the District's school board president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Mr. Paige told the newsletter of the Southern Baptist Convention: "All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith." Now, one may take from this that Mr. Paige's personal preference is for Christian schools, which is not a firing offense but is faintly insulting given that he is the nation's lead spokesman for public schools. Or one may see it as an encouragement to public school teachers to mimic Christian values and teach children to have a strong faith, which is also odd given that the Supreme Court frowns on the practice.

Christian schools are growing, he elaborated, because "the value system is set. That's not the case in a public school where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values." What could he mean by "kids with different kinds of values"? If this is a euphemism for kids with bad attitudes or teachers who can't discipline or failing schools, he should say that. As is, this sounds like a criticism of the diversity we've always encouraged in our public schools.

The sentiment also undermines Mr. Paige's long-standing support of vouchers. Mr. Paige has always argued that vouchers are about giving parents choices, that ultimately they "help public schools," as he said earlier this year. It was on that basis that Mrs. Cafritz supported him, over the objections of much of the D.C. establishment. But here he seems to confirm the worst fears of voucher opponents -- that "school choice" is a cover for Christian school advocates who have given up on public education.

If Mr. Paige is in search of a model of a school built on different kinds of values, wholly secular and wholly effective, he need look no farther than himself. As superintendent of Houston's schools, his goal was to disprove the notion that "big systems in America don't work because they are populated by minority children." He fired deadwood principals and won over teachers suspicious of him. He declared that his schools would take care of children -- if need be give them a bath and a change of clothes every morning. On his watch, the percentage of students passing standardized tests shot up from 37 to 73. These are the values of high expectations, discipline, nurturing. Presumably they are the values of Christians, Jews, Muslims, secular humanists. They are the values that should make a public school, all things being equal, a good choice for any student. And they should be enough to make an education secretary proud.