Education Opinion

He Holds the Future of U.S. Public Education in His Hands

By Megan M. Allen — November 10, 2016 8 min read
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I went down a rabbit hole yesterday. A rabbit hole of research. It was how I chose to funnel my disbelief in where we are as a country, where I turned to channel my fear.

This article came across my Twitter feed, giving an overview of President-Elect Donald Trump’s education advisor and the K-12 transition team. One of the names rang out as familiar, and I immediately became a little bit more optimistic about the future of public education. Just a little bit, but it’s what I’m holding onto right now. It’s my lifeboat.

Trump appointed Rob Goad as his education advisor several months ago. Goad is a senior legislative assistant for Indiana GOP Representative Luke Messer, focusing on issues of school choice and K-12 policy (in case you are wondering, no education background from what I can dig up). His K-12 transition team consists of two men, Williamson Evers, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute, and Gerard Robinson, a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. He was also our commissioner of education in Florida for one really tumultuous year. A man that I got to know to some degree and had great respect for.

So I spent yesterday digging, researching, and clinging to the little inkling of hope that was dangling in front of me. I don’t know if I am still optimistic, but I am cautiously realistic and slightly optimistic because of the inclusion of this man. Here’s what I know and what I found out, starting with the day I met then-Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

First, the airing of dirty laundry. My relationship as 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year with the commissioner of education during my year of service was not great. And this was the year where one of my duties was working as the conduit between Florida’s teachers and the powers-that-be in Tallahassee. And I could never get an audience with him. I felt like such a wasted resource in that manner. But I think it was evidence of how he valued (or didn’t) teacher voice. My only one-on-one conversation involved me sitting in the cafeteria of Florida’s Department of Education crying into a cup of coffee as he told me to back down on my advocacy work around proposed evaluation legislation.

Our then-commissioner was always unreachable and out of touch, and though I heard from my colleagues at the Florida Department of Education he was a good man, I never had the opportunity to get to know that side of him. I actually got my hand slapped for the one time I emailed him directly—and I was his Florida Teacher of the Year. If I couldn’t reach out to our Florida commissioner, what did that say?

So at the end of my year of service, it was announced that there would be a new appointed commissioner of education. His name was Gerard Robinson, and he was coming to us after being the head of education in Virginia.

After the year of service for Florida Teacher of the Year, the outgoing teacher of the year gives a closing speech as the new teacher of the year is welcomed. This celebration is hosted at Universal Studios, Florida, with all the 67 district teachers of the year gathering for two days of learning.

After my speech as outgoing Teacher of the Year, we all piled on buses to head back to the hotel in downtown Orlando. We decided to extend our celebration at the hotel bar. And that’s when it happened...

Gerard Robinson was in the lobby, and we saw an opportunity. After having strained (or little) relationship with our outgoing commissioner of education, we saw our soon-to-be commissioner and decided to start building relationship. So I waltzed over to him with a teacher colleague, asking him to join the group of teachers sitting at a table and discussing education in our great sunshine state.

Here’s the kicker. He was pleased to. He joined us. And when I asked him if he’d like to talk to a group of teachers from Florida, he said no. He’d like to come and listen. And he did...he sat, asked great questions, and listened. Soon-to-be Commissioner Robinson didn’t shun us, but he seemed to really be invested in listening to teachers. One of my recommendations in that conversation was to pull back together a Teacher Advisory Group, which we had under a former governor but had been dissolved. And guess what? When Commissioner Robinson came to Tallahassee, he made that happen. Teacher voice re-emerged back in the Florida Department of Education.

Now I realize that I am sounding Pollyannaesque and I am fully aware of that side of my being, but I also feel like I have an ability to sense people’s authenticity. Call it a BS-o-meter. And I feel like these actions by Commissioner Robinson were not rubber stamps or meaningless actions, but I felt that he did value teacher voice.

So that’s the good news. That’s what I was feeling as I went into research mode yesterday. I’m going to present some of the highlights I found when digging, and then you can make up your own mind. Here’s a list of pros and cons (through my eyes and in my opinion):

Con: Though I feel like Robinson was receptive to teacher voice and input, there is evidence to the contrary. In 2011 when Florida was debating the inclusion of ELL test scores in our school grading formula, he put together a task force to research the issue and develop recommendations. Robinson chose to go against all of the task force’s recommendations except for one, for which one member of the task force stated “We could have led the way in changing practice,” she said, “but unfortunately, we are setting up a system where schools and teachers are going to be reluctant to have ELLs because of how they will negatively impact their school grades.”

Pro: When I was chatting with colleagues about this on social media, the former president of one large parent advocacy group within Florida stated that he listened to parents more than other commissioners had. This seems positive, but pushing back...if the bar was already really low from former commissioners...

Con: His education experience. He taught one year in a private school, he was commissioner of education in Florida and secretary of education in Virginia, both for one year a piece. He has worked in education policy as a trustee, research associate, fellow, consultant, and liaison. He also worked for several years as a director of a group called “Children’s Academies for Achievement,” though I can’t find much on that.

Jury’s out: There seems to be disequilibrium with a few issues based on what little I can find on his positions. On inequity in education, he claims in an AEI article on his education recommendations that: “To truly make our nation great, the next president must acknowledge a host of social and cognitive demands that lend only some Americans a hand.” That sounds like a focus on equity to me. But then I balance that out with Robinson’s public support of school choice. Is that his answer for equity? I hope not, but jury’s still out.

Pro: As I look at the projected Trump cabinet members, there is little diversity. From what I’ve seen, practically none. It looks like a multiplied version of the Muppet Show’s Statler and Waldorf—a bunch of older white males. All jokes aside, Gerard Robinson is one of the few people of color I’ve seen associated with Trump’s leadership. I’m finding some hope in that Robinson can be a voice for those students, teachers, and constituents who are feeling underrepresented.

Jury’s out: More disequilibrium with the federal role in education. Robinson spoke to the importance of the federal government’s role in education as it pertained to funding and resources. Quoted in his AEI piece: “While not a large percentage of overall K-12 spending, the federal government remains an important investor in education through multiple funding sources.” That sounds like there is a role for the federal government in education, for in my experience, where there is money involved there are policies tightly tied to them. But maybe this is Pollyanna speaking again, for then today’s Education Week article with quotes from Robinson includes that “Trump will ‘streamline, at least’ the U.S. Department of Education.” I wonder how hard or easy it will be to cut back to the role of the department of education? Switch to state control? Or how much of a priority this will even be for the Trump leadership? I’m worried, but hoping and thinking that the jury’s still out.

Con: Entrepreneurship in education. I was hopeful that this meant that innovation in education would be highlighted, for Robinson seemed to have vague and open-ended language in his AEI piece. But alas, today’s Ed Week piece seems to connect entrepreneurship to school choice and charters. A false connection and a sad one.

Jury’s out: As Florida’s commissioner, he resigned abruptly after only a year. This was projected to be because of a debacle involving standardized writing scores, but I push back. I wonder how much change one person can make in a year, and if this was really his doing. I also wonder how much power he truly had as Commissioner-in my perspective he was acting on someone’s behalf and had little control. This is Florida education politics-there is a powerful education dynasty there. But that’s my opinion.

Con: From Ed Week today: “President-elect Donald Trump will work to ensure “a new way of how to deliver public education” that focuses on educational entrepreneurship and strong public and private school options, according to a leader of Trump’s presidential transition team responsible for education.” This terrifies me but also shows a huge disconnect in understanding what public education is. It is not “delivering public education,” but it is about learning. Lifting. Inspiring. The language using the term “delivery” because it seems to allude towards depersonalization of education and up-ending the whole system.

So here’s my charge: It is our job as those who care about education to reach out and work with this administration as they begin to steer the barge public education. We must unbury our heads and extend our palms as thought partners. We must be unafraid to walk across the room and ask a stranger in power to have a conversation with a group of teachers.

And my ask to former Commissioner Robinson, the man who made a few teachers in Florida feel valued after a series of male leaders made us feel like we had little to offer: Reach out to your teachers, parents, and stakeholders. We are here, and we are ready. You left such a great first impression on me, and I’m still hopeful.

Sidenote: The Trump transition team released a hashtag last night: @Transition2017

Photos courtesy of Daniel Rozinga and Rokiu13.

The opinions expressed in An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.