Team Jeb! grows bigger and stronger at the U.S. Department of Education (USED). The key position of assistant secretary of education for elementary and secondary education has gone to Frank Brogan, a longtime Bush ally from Florida. We don’t know who recommended Brogan, but we do know who appointed him – President Trump. Does this move snuff out the last hope that Trump will keep his campaign promises to stop federal support of Common Core and return control over education to the states and the people?
As soon as Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, concern surfaced about her history of supporting the one education policy that Trump railed against during the campaign: the Common Core national standards (though she backtracked, sort of, when appointed). DeVos also apparently embraced the Bush worldview on education – centralized control with benefits distributed to various corporate and other stakeholders. Her strong and longstanding ties to Team Bush include donating to and serving on the board of Jeb’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which pushes policies such as so-called competency-based education, digital training, increased data-collection on students, and government preschool.
All of these policies were favored by the Obama education establishment as well (the only significant difference between Obama and Bush on education issues concerns school choice). DeVos’s selection thus signaled a continuation of most policies of the last eight years.
Unsurprisingly, DeVos has now surrounded herself not with representatives of the pro-constitutionalist, anti-Common Core wing of education but with Bush acolytes such as Carlos Muniz as USED general counsel. But the USED position of most interest to parent activists throughout the country — assistant secretary for K-12 education – remained to be filled. Giving that job to a proven anti-Common Core warrior would rekindle hope for some change in USED’s trajectory. But Trump gave the job to Frank Brogan.
Brogan’s ties to Bush run deep. He spent most of his career in Florida, as a teacher, school administrator, and then the state’s Commissioner of Education. When Bush ran for governor in 1998, he chose Brogan as his Lieutenant Governor running mate. Brogan served eight years in that position until he moved into higher education, first in Florida and most recently in Pennsylvania.
Common Core is a good litmus test for ascertaining one’s education worldview generally. If he’s sympathetic to the idea of having national standards created by a central, unelected, unaccountable authority and “incentivizing” states to adopt them and the aligned national tests, then there’s no serious argument he’ll stand strongly for state and local autonomy. Brogan doesn’t pass the test.
As he left his position as Chancellor of the Florida State University System in 2013, Brogan was asked about Common Core. He responded, “The standards are basically completed, and most people seem to suggest that they’re fair, they’re rigorous and they’re clear.” He then pivoted to the question of a national Common Core assessment, urging states to take their time. He recommended that policymakers focus on “giving teachers a chance to build curriculum at the local level around those new standards” and to “give school districts and parents the opportunity to understand those standards” before implementing assessments.
Note the Clintonian hedging about the quality of Common Core: “most people” “seem to suggest” it’s fine. (This man has a bright future in Washington.) But his failure to acknowledge the withering criticism of Common Core, even among expert academics who are intimately familiar with it (see here, here, and here), gives away the game. And his mentioning “local” curriculum and better “understanding” for parents falls flat. Curriculum is being churned out by national and international companies, not local teachers, and the more parents “understand” Common Core, the more they hate it.
The pool of strong anti-Common Core, constitutionalist candidates for this position was deep. Trump could have fundamentally altered the landscape by choosing Bill Evers or Sandra Stotsky or Peg Luksik, just to name a few. Such a choice would have energized the parent-activist base that has become demoralized by DeVos’s decisions.
But Trump’s last chance to affect education policy with personnel seems to have slipped away. Perhaps he got bad advice from DeVos, Vice President Pence, or other denizens or defenders of the education swamp. Maybe he doesn’t understand that Common Core is a continuing threat or that there really is something the federal government could do about it. Maybe he’s too busy. Or maybe he just doesn’t care about education.
In any event, congratulations, Jeb! Your consolation prize was the Department of Education.