It’s not easy being a progressive education reformer in the age of President Trump. Speaking for myself only, I support high-quality public charter schools but I oppose vouchers. And even progressive voucher supporters want choice accompanied by real accountability, which does not appear to be part of this administration’s agenda.
So far, Trump has said little about accountability and his nominee for U.S. education secretary, Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos, has a very mixed record. In a painful exchange with Senator Tim Kaine at her confirmation hearing, she insisted she supports accountability but seemed unable or unwilling to embrace the underlying goal of equity.
So, it was somewhat reassuring to learn that Trump has hired Baltimore education advocate and former charter school leader Jason Botel as White House education advisor. By all accounts, Botel is serious, committed and effective and believes deeply in quality school choice and robust accountability.
A Tough Job
I’m hopeful that Botel can help the president understand the real challenges facing public education and the important but limited role that school choice will play in addressing them.
Trump needs to know that we have many great charter schools and many lousy ones. He needs to know that virtual and for-profit charter schools are not nearly as successful as high-quality nonprofits. As responsible charter advocates have pointed out, many are downright awful and should be shut down immediately.
Trump needs to know that in rural and suburban communities with underperforming schools, choice is mostly irrelevant as a strategy to improve them. And that voucher programs get very uneven results, and carry other risks, such as bringing religion into classrooms and fracturing political support for public education.
Obviously, quality is all over the place in traditional public schools as well, which is why reform needs to move forward. But we can’t simply replace underperforming schools with something that isn’t measurably better. Charter schools and voucher programs have to meet a higher bar.
Like DeVos, I “trust parents” to make good choices, but we still have a responsibility to parents and students, if not to taxpayers, to minimize bad options. The unregulated free market isn’t enough.
Both Trump and DeVos, if she is confirmed, also need to understand the historic role the federal government has played in protecting children at risk and increasing access. But for the federal government, we might still have legal segregation, and students with disabilities would be at much greater risk.
Thanks to the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, tens of thousands of aggrieved students get their day in court and a national conversation is now underway around over-disciplining kids of color and inequitable access to rigorous high school classes.
And while Betsy DeVos made no commitment to enforce guidance the Obama administration issued on sexual assaults on campus, guidance is an important tool for any administration and helpful to states and school districts wrestling with complex legal issues.
But for the federal government, we wouldn’t know very much about progress in closing achievement gaps and we wouldn’t have nearly as much rigorous research telling us which programs are working and which ones aren’t.
But for the federal government, we might not have our incredible network of public colleges and universities. Millions of G.I.’s returning from World War II might not have gone to college and millions of low-income men and women would not be in college today.
And, while it won’t be a comfortable conversation given that Trump University has been fined $25 million for defrauding students, Botel needs to help the president understand why it’s important to hold colleges and universities accountable for the trillions of dollars in student loans issued by the government.
Local control of education is foundational in America, but the federal government still plays a critical role, even under the new federal education law that shrinks the federal footprint. The next education secretary will be approving state accountability plans and will still be attaching strings to the tens of billions of dollars the administration distributes each year.
This Tuesday, the Senate Committee that oversees education is scheduled to vote on DeVos’ nomination. Opposition to DeVos is building and was prominently on display at the women’s marches in Washington and around the country. Well-respected reform organizations and even some charter school advocates oppose DeVos because her resistance to oversight puts children and the choice movement at risk.
Presidents have the right to choose their cabinet and no one aligns more closely with Trump’s one-word education platform—“choice”—than Betsy DeVos. Nevertheless, she is a very troubling choice for the top education job in the country. If I had a vote, it would not be for her.
While DeVos’ lack of firsthand experience teaching kids or running public schools is not an absolute disqualifier, it’s certainly not a credential as some have suggested. Under any circumstances, the education secretary should be someone who understands all the tools available to protect kids and drive improvement, and believes in equity, accountability and enforcement of federal education laws.
If the Trump White House is anything like its predecessors, Trump’s top education advisor in the White House will have a lot of say over education policy. For all of the good work done at the department level, the White House always has the last word.
Jason Botel’s appointment offers a glimmer of hope that someone who shares progressive reform values will be at the table shaping policy.