If Jeb Bush can’t be president, he would probably settle for the consolation prize of control over the Department of Education (USED). Bush was happy with President Trump’s “outstanding” appointment of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education, and with her most recent appointments, DeVos has indicated Bush can still be proud of her.
Through organizations she founded and led and through serving on the board of his foundation, DeVos has demonstrated her affinity with Bush on almost all important education issues: supporting the Common Core national standards (although she backtracked, sort of, when she was nominated for secretary), school choice, digital training rather than genuine education, sweeping collection and use of student data by government and corporations, and increased preschool programs to get toddlers into government schooling. If Trump intended to keep the education promises he made during the campaign, DeVos isn’t the obvious person to help him do it.
DeVos also populated USED with bureaucrats from the Bush wing of education policy, including Democrat and Black Lives Matter supporter Jason Botel (since departed, after angering DeVos’s Michigan friends over that state’s ESSA plan). Conservative activists were disappointed and mystified by these choices, especially since there’s no shortage of solid, highly qualified Common Core opponents who were available (Bill Evers, Sandra Stotsky, and Peg Luksik come to mind).
DeVos’s most recent appointments are a mixed bag. She has chosen former South Carolina State Superintendent Mick Zais for Deputy Secretary at USED. On the one hand, Zais vocally opposed Common Core as S.C. Superintendent; on the other, the review process he put in place resulted in a virtual rebrand of Common Core. According to English and math standards experts Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, in some respects the new standards are even inferior to the national standards.
Zais also, to his credit, pulled the state out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. But the replacement was the ACT Aspire assessment, which is aligned to Common Core. If S.C. is using a Common Core test, it’s using Common Core.
The most hopeful aspect of Zais’s background is his support of local control in education. In 2011 he withdrew S.C. from the competition for Race to the Top bribery dollars, explaining: “The Race to the Top program expands the federal role in education by offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington. More federal money for education will not solve our problems. Schools need less, not more, federal intrusion to increase student achievement.”
So the Zais pick is disappointing in some aspects, promising in others. But the appointment of James Blew as Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy has less of an upside.
Blew comes from Student Success California, affiliated with 50CAN (the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now). 50CAN is the successor organization to Students First, founded by Michelle Rhee and taken over by Blew when she left. Students First enthusiastically supported Common Core as “establishing rigor for all students.”
Before his Students First/50CAN gig, Blew was the Walton Family Foundation’s Director of K-12 Reform. Under his leadership, Walton donated millions to Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Even more disturbing, Walton “ardently” supported Common Core and, according to commentators in Arkansas, flexed its muscle to block conservatives there from removing the standards.
With this background, Blew epitomizes the “government-foundation cartel” model of educational policy-making. Theorists in private foundations, who may know little about education, advance their pet policies by 1) placing their people in positions of influence in federal and state governments, and 2) investing millions to propagate their theories and impose them on children and parents nationwide, utterly unaccountable for failure.
Another interesting tidbit is that Blew, like Botel, was or is a registered Democrat. DeVos couldn’t find an anti-Common Core conservative for that post?
Perhaps Blew was chosen because of his previous work on school choice, which is DeVos’s passion. But nothing about his background suggests conservatives can consider him an ally in restoring local control over education.
For months now, conservatives have begged DeVos to spearhead Trump’s promised swamp-draining at USED. From a policy standpoint, her record is mixed; for example, there’s been some inching away from federal hypercontrol over state assessments and from abject surrender to the LGBT lobby, but neither has been accomplished with clarity and confidence.
But from a personnel standpoint, DeVos’s record is, as her boss might say, a disaster. Though she has chosen a few solid people such as Candice Jackson for civil-rights enforcement, even there the resulting policy revisions have been tentative. And too many of the people selected for K-12 policy can be expected to continue the trajectory launched by progressive educators a century ago and reaching new heights under Obama and his secretaries.
With the proper personnel, the Trump administration could revolutionize public education by restoring to states their constitutional authority –to create their own standards, choose their own assessments, hire and evaluate their own teachers, and structure their system however they see fit. Will DeVos make that happen? Or will she allow Democrat and Bush minions to undermine the agenda her boss ran on? Too soon to tell, but the warning signs are there.