The Controversial Couple Heading Trump's Hispanic Education Efforts
Couple lead amid uncertainty for federal programs for ELL students
Aimee Viana sat next to President Donald Trump in February 2017, joining a panel of parents and teachers gathered for a White House listening session with newly appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
That West Wing meeting foreshadowed a 12-month period in which Viana, who introduced herself to Trump as a parent and former educator from Cary, N.C., and her husband, José Viana, landed high-profile roles as political appointees in the Trump administration.
The Vianas—the Miami-born children of Cuban immigrants with ties to influential Trump boosters—now lead a federal office and initiative designed to create educational opportunities for immigrants and Hispanic children, whom, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, now represent a quarter of the nation's public school students.
Just three months after the listening session, Trump appointed José Viana as an assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, where he oversees the office of English-language acquisition and a $60 million budget.
The following February, the education secretary installed Aimee Viana as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, where she's charged with coordinating efforts to address the needs of the nation's nearly 13 million Hispanic students.
The Vianas assumed their new duties at a time when their respective offices face uncertain futures.
The White House initiative has not convened a meeting of its advisory commission in the 19 months since Trump took office.
And, the office of English-language acquisition, or OELA, could soon be restructured as part of an effort by DeVos to revamp the entire education department. The talk comes amid concerns from civil rights and advocacy groups that the federal education department has already failed to ensure equity for the nation's 5 million English-learners.
In an administration that has alienated large swaths of the Latino population—with its immigration policies, response to Puerto Rico's devastation by Hurricane Maria, and push to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—immigrant advocacy and civil rights groups have praised the Vianas as allies, but some have questioned how the husband-and-wife team landed the prestigious posts at such a critical time.
While the Vianas were relative unknowns inside the Beltway before their arrival, they are related to one of Washington's most prominent power couples.
Jose Viana's sister, former Fox News contributor Mercedes Schlapp, is the director of strategic communications at the White House, where she has served as a senior member of Trump's staff since September 2017. Her husband, Matt Schlapp, is an influential lobbyist and the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
"When I watch them on television defending me, nobody has a chance," Trump said of the Schlapps during his February 2017 speech at the conference as he thanked them for being "fantastic friends and supporters."
The Education Department—which declined Education Week's request to interview the Vianas—said the Schlapps' connection to the Trump administration played no role in the appointments of either José or Aimee Viana.
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said DeVos connected with the Vianas "through a network of education policy experts, reformers, and grassroots leaders she's developed over the last 30 years."
The Vianas started their careers in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., public schools, where José first worked as an English-language-learner teacher and Aimee began as a paraprofessional while still a college student.
After leaving South Florida, the couple spent close to a decade in North Carolina, carving out careers with regional and statewide influence.
Aimee Viana served in the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., working as a principal at two diocesan schools, including one recognized as a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2010. She later joined the bishop's executive staff, overseeing a half-dozen offices and missions, including Hispanic ministry and outreach services for 54 counties in the eastern half of the state.
"Her combined experience in administrative roles along with her field experience—working directly with administrators, teachers, and students in a variety of educational settings—makes her an exceptional talent who could create a positive impact on Hispanic Americans," Catholic Diocese of Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge, who led the Diocese of Raleigh during Aimee Viana's time there, wrote to Education Week in an email.
Before coming to Washington, José Viana spent eight years as an administrator at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, helping the children of migrant workers overcome academic hurdles, such as frequent moves and cultural and language differences, that can prevent them from doing well in school.
Like many of the students they've served throughout their careers, Aimee and José Viana began school as English-language learners.
José's own mother fled to the United States from Cuba while pregnant with him, after the Castro regime detained his father as a political prisoner.
"So many of the children we worked with were in families in challenging situations with immigration or challenging situations with just being in a new country," said Sonja Williams, who worked alongside Viana at the Migrant Education Program in North Carolina. "He knows that. He's seen it firsthand. He brings that real-life experience."
Between his stints in Miami-Dade and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, José Viana worked as an assistant principal in the Durham, N.C., public schools, where he established a districtwide parent group designed to address the academic challenges faced by Latino children from low-income families, according to his education department biography.
Until last week, that same biography indicated that he had a master's degree in educational administration, which a department spokeswoman said Viana earned from Florida Atlantic University in 2006. But the university has no record of issuing him a degree. The Education Department has since changed the page to reflect that he earned a certificate, not a degree, in educational leadership.
DeVos' talk of restructuring OELA, which José Viana now manages, has faced questions from Democratic members of Congress, who wrote in a letter to the education secretary that any move to diminish the office "only further highlights a continued concern about this administration's vitriolic rhetoric about individuals in this country who speak another language."
Several of José Viana's predecessors have also expressed concern about the future of the office.
"With the growth of languages in our public schools, [OELA] needs to be a voice on its own," said Maria Hernandez Ferrier, who led OELA for several years during the George W. Bush administration. She also spent six months as the acting director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics during the Bush administration.
"These are more than just symbolic roles. They have to be decision makers at the table," said Hernandez Ferrier, the president emerita of Texas A&M University, San Antonio.
But even ardent supporters of the Vianas question their influence in an administration seen as increasingly hostile to immigrant and Hispanic families.
"If they get the support of the secretary and have the secretary's ear ... it will do [DeVos] well," said Santiago Wood, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. "[The Vianas] bring a lot of strength and depth to the jobs. But I'm not certain if they're going to get the support necessary … to do anything that is going to make a difference."
The state of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, commissioned by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990, may be a prime example.
During the Obama administration, the group focused on reducing the Latino dropout rate and advocating for legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented students. The initiative also changed its name during that era, dropping the reference to "Hispanic Americans" in favor of just "Hispanics."
"We felt that saying you had to be a citizen in order to work with us to improve the country was a limiting factor," said Juan Sepúlveda, who led the initiative during the first term of the Obama administration.
The president's advisory commission has not met since Trump took office, the last chairman, Miami-Dade College President Eduardo Padrón, told Education Week through a spokeswoman.
Each administration appoints its own commission, so a "transition period occurs between administrations," said Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill.
In a prepared statement sent to Education Week, White House Deputy Secretary Lindsay Walters highlighted the nation's record-low unemployment rate for Hispanics and wrote: "The President looks forward to appointing individuals to his Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics to continue building on these successes for American communities, and ensure many have access to the education needed for good-paying jobs."
In that February 2017 White House parent-teacher listening session, President Trump discussed the plight of poor and disadvantaged students, how failing schools have shortchanged African-American students, the merits of school choice, and the national spike in autism diagnoses, but did not mention Latino students during those public comments.
For some, it came as no surprise.
"Those of us who where there in the Obama administration feel it's unfortunate that we weren't able to continue to build on what we felt were huge successes," said Sepúlveda, now a professor of urban education at Trinity University in San Antonio. "While we feel bad that's not continuing, I just keep hearing President Obama in my head saying, 'That's what happens when you have elections and a new administration takes on new priorities.'"
Vol. 38, Issue 03, Pages 1, 31Published in Print: September 5, 2018, as White House Ties In Question for Hispanic Officials