On Nov. 23, President-elect Donald Trump announced his nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education: Betsy DeVos. The billionaire is a longtime critic of the public education system who contends that school choice should be a top priority in any reform efforts.
This aligns with Trump’s main education proposal, which would earmark $20 billion in federal money to promote a market-driven version of school choice that would help families who are dissatisfied with district public schools move to private, religious or charter schools.
Looking at her influence in Detroit — home to one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the nation — skeptics are leery of DeVos’ opposition to policies that would tighten oversight in the for-profit school sector. DeVos’ track record as a reform activist also reveals she’s anti-union and pro-voucher — two hot-button topics that have put teachers unions and public school advocates on edge.
But what does this all mean for Minnesotans? Minnesota has long been at the forefront of school choice efforts like chartering and inter-district open enrollment, but has never supported a voucher system. While DeVos’ nomination has yet to be finalized, MinnPost reached out to a number of leaders in the local education sector for their reactions, lingering questions and predictions.
Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota commissioner of education
Cassellius says she’s hopeful the new secretary of education will uphold the sense of urgency that outgoing Secretary of Education John King and his predecessors have brought to “keeping the focus on equity” to ensure all students have access to a good education.
She is optimistic that, under a Trump administration, states will continue to make gains in two key bipartisan efforts: expanding early childhood education opportunities and moving forward with the new federally mandated, state-crafted accountability law commonly known as ESSA.
“I don’t think it will be this huge upset, so to speak,” she said of DeVos’ nomination. “I think the way the Every Student Succeeds Acct has been crafted, it gives a significant balance to the role of both the federal government and the state.”
In terms of expanding early education services — an item that sits at the top of Gov. Mark Dayton’s agenda — Cassellius says she’ll be interested to see whom DeVos appoints to lead the U.S. Education Department’s office that deals with elementary education. “That will give a hint to the policy direction she and the president-elect may want to support,” Cassellius said.
When it comes to the division of duties, Cassellius recalls that federal government’s involvement in education has, historically, focused on matters of civil rights. In the Brown v. Board of Education era, the federal government stepped in to address disparities in access to quality schools that fell along racial lines. Given the persistent achievement gaps in Minnesota, and beyond, Cassellius believes the federal government still has a civil-rights role to play. But she sees a shift taking place that doesn’t place as much onus on the U.S. Department of Education.
“I anticipate what we’ll see is greater expectations and responsibilities placed on states,”she said.
Since she serves on the board of directors for the Council of Chief State School Officers, Cassellius says she looks forward to meeting with DeVos sometime within the next few months.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota
Specht, a staunch supporter of public education, is already in defense mode.
“It’s my understanding that President-elect Trump wants to take $20 billion … from public schools and funnel it to for-profit enterprises. That will hurt a lot of students in the public system,” she said.
Minnesota public schools currently rely on federal funding to help cover special-education costs, to provide Title 1 dollars, and to help pay for school lunches for poor students, Specht explained. “Those are just three examples of pockets of money that, essentially, wouldn’t be coming to Minnesota schools,” she said. “I know that that would hurt a lot of kids here in Minnesota.”
“Lastly, I would say anytime you want to take taxpayer money and give it to for-profit private organizations, I have a problem with that,” she added. “We’re talking about vouchers here. We’re talking about taking money out of the public system and putting it in for-profit corporations. Public education has a purpose in our society. It’s the core function of our democracy.”
Turning to a more immediate task, Specht says she’ll continue to watch the development of Minnesota’s ESSA plan, which is slated to be in draft form come March. No matter what stance DeVos takes on education, Specht recognizes states are currently tasked with defining what makes a good school.
Beyond that, she’s most interested in another pressing education issue that Trump and DeVos have yet to address in any detail: how to address teacher shortages. “I’ll be looking to see what kind of policies — not only in Congress — but what policies we’re going to see here in Minnesota that will help attract teachers to the profession and help keep them there once they’re there,” she said.
Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools
A proponent of charter schools, Piccolo likes that DeVos had indicated that she’s supportive of the charter sector. But his optimism is tempered, at least for now. As he explained, there are two distinct branches of chartering — the corporate model and the ma-and-pa model that’s more representative of the charter sector in Minnesota.
“The vast majority of our [charter] schools are kind of organic charter schools where parents, the teachers, and other community people have formed schools, rather than a corporate management organization coming in and setting up schools, which is the case in a number of states, including Michigan,” he said.
He says any push toward corporate chartering in Minnesota “would be of some concern.” But he thinks Minnesota’s chartering laws are already structured in a way that could deter this from happening, at least on a large scale.
“There are some things in our law that the corporate model doesn’t like. For example, there are teachers on our boards of charter schools. They don’t particularly like that model because that means employees have a say in the school,” he said. “Some don’t like the fact that [Minnesota charter] schools don’t own buildings.”
He also has reservations about the possibility of things like block funding that could lump federal special education and Title 1 dollars together, further obscuring the fact that special-education funding is already vastly underfunded by the federal government.
No matter how much, or how little, the federal government ends up dictating to local educators, Piccolo recognizes that DeVos’ new platform will give her the power of influence.
“The secretary can kind of set the national agenda, in terms of the conversation of the direction of education by their approach to and interpretation of things,” he said. “That’s as important, sometimes, as how they structure things.”
Joe Nathan, founder and senior fellow at the Center for School Change
Nathan, a longtime fixture in local education policy discussions who has also done a lot of work with the U.S. Department of Education over the years, says he has “considerable concerns and some hopes” about DeVos’ nomination.
Starting with an administrative concern, he raised the issue of DeVos’ lack of administrative experience with government at the state or federal level. His other major concern is policy-based: She supports vouchers — publicly funded support for K-12 religious schools — and he does not.
“I think, at this moment of enormous divisiveness in the country, it would not be helpful to have public funds going toward religious schools, some of which teach that this religion or that religion is superior to all others,” he said. “I just don’t think that that’s a positive direction for the country.”
If she’s willing to consult a variety of people who have been involved in school choice programs, however, Nathan thinks there’s reason to be hopeful. “I think that school choice is a lot like electricity — it has to be handled carefully. And if it’s handled well, it has many benefits. But if it’s handled poorly, it creates more problems than it solves,” he said.
For instance, he’s against including K-12 schools in a school choice program that are allowed to pick and choose among kids. He worked with the late Paul Wellstone, at the federal level, to ensure that district magnet schools had open admissions. At the state level, he worked to ensure that charters were open to all kids as well.
Research on school choice programs isn’t definitive, he says. But he’d venture to say there are a handful of best practices or lessons that have emerged.
“First, if we’re serious about making choices and options available to all kinds of people, then we need to make sure that there is transportation available,” he said. “Otherwise it can be choice in theory, but not in fact.”
He also says parents need high-quality information about school options that encompasses more than test scores, so they can make informed decisions. This effort needs to include in-person information sessions like school choice fairs with resources like translators, he says, because families can’t be expected to get all their information online.
“I think that there might be some funding, coming to Minnesota, to help assist and encourage some of our current forms of school choice,” he said, noting he hopes to see this bolster efforts to expand things like PSEO and dual-credit course offerings, which offer secondary students the opportunity to get college credit, as well as new school-choice initiatives like teacher-powered schools.
Henry Jiménez, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs
Representing a nonpartisan state agency, Jiménez isn’t in the business of taking any sides or speculating. He’s focused on finding a way to be of service. “Whoever’s in office is who we work with and are ready to provide our information and insight to make decisions that will benefit our community,” he said.
The Latino community he represents, however, has arguably suffered a social setback given the rhetoric Trump used on the campaign trail that cast immigrants as “the other” and stoked enthusiasm for completing the wall along the Mexican border. Post-election, Jiménez says, people have been contacting his office with concerns.
“Post-election what we’ve heard more is from schools — wanting to know how they can provide information to their Latino and other immigrant populations so they can feel supported by the school,” he said. “We’ve also heard from nonprofits who work with us directly, of issues at schools.”
This is an issue DeVos will inherit when she takes office. If, and how, she plans to address it remains to be seen.
For now, Jiménez hopes to counter some of the misconceptions about the Latino community in Minnesota with some simple numbers, starting with the student population: 91 percent of Latino students under the age of 18 are native born. “I think it’s important for folks to know that,” he said. “It’s not a significant number that are foreign born. … We are Minnesotans.”
Many of these students will continue to need federal and state support offered through English Language Learner programs. It’s common for these students to have at least one parent who is an immigrant, Jiménez said, so they likely speak another language at home.
The local Latino population is projected to reach 300,000 by next year. About half of the population are under age 25; and about a third live in greater Minnesota.
“When I think about ‘How is Minnesota going to prepare for the future?’ it needs an educated population,” he said. “And if a significant number of Latino and other people of color are not doing as well, that’s obviously going to affect how well the Minnesota economy can grow.”
Dr. Louis Porter, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage
When asked, Porter took a more assertive stance on DeVos’ nomination.
“Betsy DeVos does not have a background in public education, does not seem to know the value of public education. That’s troubling to me. We know that voucher programs, and the types of things she appears to support, hurt our community,” he said. “This, to me, is another reminder, that the African-American community has to be ever vigilant and watch this administration and gear up for the types of counters and the type of fight we’re going to have ahead of us.”
If her push for channeling public money into the private education sector materializes, Porter says, he has serious concerns that this would end up benefiting a very small segment of the population — and the beneficiaries probably won’t be black.
“If her appointment does go though, I’m going to be looking at what she does for low-income families and students. I’m going to be looking for what she does to close the achievement gap,” he said. “I have real concerns about her sensitivity to the real problems that face children of color.”
In the face of a new administration that he doesn’t see reflecting many of the concerns of the community he represents, Porter says staying a part of the education conversation — both locally and nationally — will be a top priority.
“For black people, education has always got to be on the forefront,” he said. “It’s essential. It’s been key to our success and freedom in the past and it will continue to be so.”