Education Groups Seek Biden's Support For Their Choices For Secretary of Education
Democrats For Educational Reform (DFER) and Chiefs For Change push for their candidates to be appointed to the highest office for implementing education policy.
Major Ed Reform Group is Set to Push Chicago, Baltimore, Philly Schools' Chiefs For Ed Secretary
By Sarah Darville, Kalyn Belsha, and Matt Barnum Nov 3, 2020
Americans are still voting for president, and it’s not clear when we’ll have a winner. But a major education reform group already has a shortlist of preferred candidates for the education secretary post in a Biden administration.
Democrats for Education Reform is coordinating a behind-the-scenes push for Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson, the head of Baltimore schools Sonja Brookins Santelises, or Philadelphia superintendent William Hite, according to an email sent to supporters Monday by the group’s president Shavar Jeffries and obtained by Chalkbeat. All three, Jeffries wrote, would represent a “‘big tent’ approach to education policymaking.”
Translation: Political realities mean that someone who has championed a specific brand of education reform isn’t likely to be Biden’s pick. But it’s possible for the choice to be someone who’s worked closely with charter schools while running a big-city school district — rather than someone affiliated with a major teachers union, for instance, whose tent might be too small for Democrats for Education Reform.
“Our primary goal is to persuade Biden to support — and to appoint a Secretary of Education who supports — innovation, public-school choice, and accountability,” Jeffries wrote, urging recipients to reach out to top Biden associates and offering talking points to help make their case. “This work remains an uphill battle.”
Jackson, Santelises, and Hite are leaders of major school systems. Jackson has overseen Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, since 2017. Santelises has led Baltimore City Public Schools since 2016. And Hite has run schools in Philadelphia since 2012.
A spokesperson for Hite said he was not aware of the DFER email and declined to comment further. A spokesperson for Jackson also declined to comment. And a spokesperson for Santelises had not responded to a request for comment as of Tuesday afternoon. A DFER spokesperson said the organization had not reached out to Hite, Jackson, or Santelises in advance of its email.
The three schools chiefs are Black and have focused on improving education for students from low-income families and students of color.
All three also oversee schools in cities where lots of students attend charter schools. In Philadelphia, about one in three public school students attends a charter school, while in Baltimore, about one in five do. In Chicago, it’s about 15%.
They are each now navigating the challenges of leading a large urban school district during a pandemic. Their districts are still operating virtually, but have tentative plans to bring some students back for in-person learning later this fall.
All are former public school teachers, too — something Biden has said is a prerequisite for the job. Jackson began her career as a high school social studies teacher before rising through the administrator ranks in Chicago. Santelises started her career with Teach for America, taught for three years in New York City, and spent time as the Baltimore district’s chief academic officer. Hite began as a marketing teacher, and was later the head of Prince George’s County schools in Maryland.
The key question is whether DFER’s advocacy has a chance of swaying a Biden transition team or is more likely to harm the chances of their preferred choices.
What could help DFER is that it has secured the support of noted civil rights groups. Jeffries said in his note that the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, among other groups, have signed onto its advocacy push. DFER was influential during the Obama administration, and has continued to play an advocacy role within the Democratic party.
“Since early in the primary season, our team has been in regular contact with the Vice President’s team, sharing our national and swing state polling, and elevating our innovative policy agenda,” Jeffries wrote in a separate email to supporters Tuesday morning.
In general, though, DFER has found some of its favored policies moving further from the Democratic Party’s mainstream. As a presidential candidate, Biden has proposed a slew of new federal restrictions on charter schools and been critical of standardized testing — a clear shift from the Obama administration, which promoted the growth of charter schools and teacher evaluations linked to test scores.
“It is certainly the Biden plan,” the campaign’s policy director Stef Feldman said at a recent event, describing the candidate’s agenda for schools. “The vice president is pretty committed to the concept that we need to be investing in our public neighborhood schools and we can’t be diverting funding away from them.”
A number of factors have driven the shift within the Democratic party — including disillusionment with Obama-era reforms, the increased political strength of teachers and their unions, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is highly unpopular among Democrats and became a figurehead for school choice.
This shifting ground is reflected in DFER’s recent policy agenda, which was signed onto by a few civil rights groups; the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank; and major charter school organizations, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The document emphasizes areas of likely agreement with a Biden administration, including expanding access to early childhood education, increasing federal funding for low-income students and students with disabilities, and raising teacher pay. Charter schools get only a brief mention in a section about “choices in quality public schools.”
Polls have shown support for charter schools among Democrats has waned, though Democratic voters of color remain more supportive, a fact DFER emphasizes in its email to supporters.
DFER’s recommendations add to a growing group of names being floated to succeed Betsy DeVos — if Biden wins — including leaders from the nation’s largest teachers unions.
The Washington Post reported this weekend that Biden is considering AFT president Randi Weingarten or former NEA leader Lily Eskelsen García. Both unions have endorsed Biden and donated to his campaign.
In interviews this week, Weingarten and Becky Pringle, the current NEA president, both declined to comment on potential selections for a Biden education secretary, saying they were focused on getting him elected. If that happens, Pringle said, the NEA will be looking for Biden to choose an education secretary who will promote racial and social justice in schools, who respects teachers and is willing to work with teachers unions.
“It’s not about releasing a list to the public,” she said. “It is about partnering with them to get the person that I just described as Secretary of Education.”
Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee sent the following letter to President-elect Joe Biden on November 9, 2020.
Dear President-elect Biden,
As CEO of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of school superintendents and state education chiefs serving more than 7 million students, I’m writing to congratulate you on your election and to pledge the network’s partnership in working to strengthen our nation and expand opportunities for all of America’s children. I know you and Dr. Biden care deeply about students. You spearheaded efforts that created new programs to help young people succeed in the global economy and have made schools safer places for children to learn and grow. Furthermore, you understand, perhaps better than any president, the difference that teachers make—every day—in their students’ lives. Never before has our nation had a First Lady who continues to teach while in the White House. Chiefs for Change is eager to work with you, and I’d like to offer our perspective on how your administration can help ensure every child receives an excellent education.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we released a report called The Return clarifying the ways that schools would need to change to support children both during the crisis and well into the future. We focused on four key areas: the use of time; the roles of adults; the quality of academic content; and the social, emotional, and mental health supports available to students. On December 2, Chiefs for Change members will gather for their annual meeting to discuss how best to lead America’s schools into the future. As bold new ideas emerge from that event, I look forward to sharing them.
It is, of course, impossible to advance strategies for improving education today without addressing the unprecedented needs brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. For that reason, during your first 100 days in office, I implore you to:
Deliver emergency relief aid to schools commensurate with the challenges they face. The $13.5 billion in federal aid for K-12 systems approved in spring 2020 is woefully insufficient. By comparison, under your leadership, the Obama-Biden Administration worked to mitigate the impacts of the Great Recession with a stimulus package that included roughly $100 billion for education. While the full extent of the economic damage caused by the pandemic is not yet known, the consequences are likely to exceed any our nation has ever seen. K-12 systems do not have the resources they need to support students, families, and schools struggling to cope with the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19. With high unemployment and cratering property and sales tax revenues, school systems are bracing for deep cuts: Some districts within the Chiefs for Change membership project losing nearly a quarter of their net operating budgets. Although it is impossible to eliminate the harm of such devastating cuts without additional federal assistance, our chiefs are doing everything they can: Members have renegotiated contracts; curtailed overtime and travel; implemented staffing caps; and enforced a freeze on discretionary spending and hiring. Even as budgets are slashed, unforeseen expenses continue to mount. Schools need funding for personal protective equipment; essential mental health services; programs to address learning loss and accelerate student progress; and robust COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
Provide universal broadband to close the digital divide once and for all. Nearly 17 million students do not have high-speed internet. The problem disproportionately affects children of color, those from low-income families, and students who are already behind in their learning. As the pandemic wears on, some students have returned to face-to-face instruction, while millions more are still attending virtual classes. In the absence of federal leadership, Chiefs for Change members and their teams are pursuing plans to get students online at home. These localized efforts are important. Yet without a holistic solution, America could end up with a patchwork of initiatives that offer varying degrees of access at best, and that perpetuate historical inequities and threaten the nation’s collective prosperity at worst. There is bipartisan agreement on the need to expand broadband. Many have proposed good ideas, including using E-Rate funds, typically reserved for schools and libraries, to cover technology and connectivity in students’ homes. Yet Democrats and Republicans have not coalesced around specific plans. As a leader focused on bringing people together, I urge you to work with Congress, internet service providers, and others to deliver the internet to every home.
In addition to providing immediate and significant relief for schools and connecting all students, I encourage your administration to do the following:
Build reliable and affordable post-secondary pathways. You and Dr. Biden have long championed postsecondary education and recognize that it is the key to economic self-sufficiency for many of our nation’s young people. By and large, however, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities must do a much better job of preparing all students—especially disadvantaged students—for success after high school. I encourage you to support initiatives that enable K-12 systems to track postsecondary and workforce outcomes and to use that data in designing more effective schools and programs. In addition, I urge your administration to make higher education more affordable by expanding access to rigorous, college-level coursework for high school students; supporting competency-based pathways to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees; funding college and career counseling programs; and simplifying the application for federal student aid. In the area of career and technical education (CTE), as vice president, you played an instrumental role in the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. I encourage your administration to continue modernizing CTE by supporting high-quality programs that give students opportunities to earn certificates and credentials valued by employers in high-growth, high-demand fields.
Give all children access to excellent schools. Chiefs for Change shares your commitment to ensuring that all children—regardless of their ZIP code, parents’ income, race, or disability—have the knowledge and skills they need for tomorrow’s world. Families with means have always been able to decide where to send their children to school. Historical patterns of segregation in housing and schooling impede the educational pathways of millions of students to this day. The Obama-Biden Administration, through the federal Charter Schools, Magnet Schools, and School Improvement Grants programs—and with joint guidance from the Departments of Education and Justice—made it possible to open new public open-enrollment schools that transcended old “red-lined” neighborhood zones. As a result, many children from historically disadvantaged backgrounds have the type of educational options that were previously only available to their more affluent peers. Sound systems of public school choice provide assurances around quality, equitable access, and equitable funding while weaving together diverse neighborhoods. I ask you to invest in the federal Charter and Magnet Schools Programs with these assurances in mind to give more families the ability to choose the public school that is best for their child.
Advance practical, principled, and innovative approaches to verify student learning. Even amid the considerable challenges of the pandemic, America must maintain its commitment to effective accountability systems that help ensure our schools educate every child. These systems, in fact, are all the more important given concerns that students have fallen behind and the research showing children of color and those from low-income families experience greater setbacks during time away from school. We must know where each child is in their academic, social, and emotional learning, and we must give that information to schools and teachers so they can use it to guide their instructional practice and other student supports. Government’s ongoing approach to assessment should be continuously informed by the best available research. Evidence and new measures—such as those of school climate and postsecondary pathways—should be used to enhance, rather than obfuscate, our understanding of student need and student success.
Elevate the teaching profession. Given Dr. Biden’s decades-long career in the classroom, you already know that nothing at school matters more to student learning than a great teacher. Yet America’s approach to preparing and supporting our educators is outdated and inadequate. We must ensure teachers are treated as professionals, not merely technicians. I ask your administration to support innovative, effective strategies to improve teacher training and development. These include residency programs that give aspiring teachers a full year of practice under an expert mentor and incorporate a competency-based program design. Such programs allow teachers to practice their craft in a real-world environment, gain fluency in the curriculum and tools they will actually use, and receive guidance from veteran educators. We must also commit more deeply to diversity in teaching as well as in school and system leadership. The Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program can be one effective tool for developing a pipeline of diverse and highly effective teachers and leaders for our highest-need schools. It should be expanded. To provide just one troubling example, only 11 percent of our nation’s education leaders are women of color. Lastly, the nation’s best education leaders are thinking not only about what an individual classroom teacher needs to know and do in order to be successful, but how a team of adults can support the whole child. To that end, I encourage you to consider the role AmeriCorps could play in student mentoring, learning acceleration, and other supports, while also contributing to a more diverse workforce in schools.
Create welcoming schools for all. The Obama-Biden Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program has protected children, teachers, and other workers from deportation, and has given them opportunities to attend college, find jobs, and contribute to our great nation. DACA provides important protections, but recent federal action, including separating children from their parents at the United States-Mexico border, has led to a culture of fear in some parts of our country: Student attendance rates have dropped, and immigrant families are less likely to engage with their child’s school. To ensure that schools are safe and welcoming places for all, I urge you to work with Congress and enact comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform.
You enter the White House at a challenging time in our nation’s history. The incidents of racist violence, civil unrest in our streets, a pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and an economy reeling from the chaos are exacting an enormous toll. But Americans are resilient. We are optimists. And our children give us hope. Please, unite our country around them. Lead courageously through this dark moment, and let’s build the future they deserve.
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