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Biden’s Pick for Deputy Education Secretary Faces Criticism Over Charter School Views

By Evie Blad — March 10, 2021 6 min read
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten speaks at Lincoln High School in San Diego during the State of the District Address on Oct. 20, 2015.

After a relatively smooth confirmation process for U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s pick to help lead the Education Department may face stronger headwinds.

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten has seen support from prominent national education leaders. But she’s also faced criticism from charter school advocates, parent activists, and the San Diego chapter of the NAACP.

Chief among the critics’ concerns is one of the most divisive issues in Biden’s education platform: charter schools.

Groups like the Center for Education Reform and the Powerful Parent Movement have singled out Marten’s criticism of charter school policy in California and her work on a task force that supported changes to the state’s authorizing laws.

If Marten is confirmed “we risk reverting to an Education Department that serves the system and not the students and parents striving to succeed within it,” said a statement from the Powerful Parent Movement which confronted 2020 Democratic presidential candidates about their positions on school choice.

But Marten’s nomination has also won praise. The Learning Policy Institute, an organization founded by Linda Darling-Hammond, who led the Biden transition team’s education efforts, labeled San Diego a “positive outlier” district in California under Marten’s leadership, citing efforts to improve academic equity. University of Southern California Education Dean Pedro Noguera said he was happy with the choice.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban public school systems, offered the organization’s “enthusiastic support” for Marten after the choice was announced in January.

“Cindy Marten will be the perfect complement” to Cardona, he said in a statement. “Both have been school-level leaders and thoroughly understand the complexities of public education at the state and local levels like few other leadership teams in the department’s history.”

While their confirmation hearings typically receive less attention from the general public, deputy education secretaries play a key role in the Education Department. They help set policy and lead major initiatives, and they are next in line to take over agency leadership if the secretary leaves.

It’s unclear if the criticisms, or the praise, will affect senators’ support of Marten.

“Senator Murray is committed to working with Secretary Cardona to make sure every single student can recover from this pandemic and that we address the longstanding inequities in our education system,” said an aide to Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate education committee. “Like all of President Biden’s qualified nominees, Senator Murray looks forward to hearing from Cindy Marten about how she would work to address systemic racism in our education system as part of Secretary Cardona’s team.”

Representatives for the White House and for Republican leadership on the Senate education committee did not respond to questions.

Positions on charter schools

Charter school supporters who’ve criticized Marten zero in on her past assertions that the publicly funded, independently managed schools draw money away from traditional public school districts.

California has the second-oldest charter school law in the country, and it has a much larger and more-complex charter school sector than other states.

In 2019, Marten served on a state task force that recommended changes to the state’s charter laws, including a recommendation that school districts should be allowed to consider the “fiscal impact” of a new charter school in the authorization process. Those recommendations informed a contentious debate that led to new state laws following compromise discussions between teachers’ unions and charter school organizers.

Maureen Magee, a spokesperson for the San Diego district, noted that, at the local level, the school system has approved five out of six charter renewal applications for the current school year, and a sixth one is pending. The district has also sought input from charter operators on its policies and set aside money for charter facilities in public bond issues, she said.

The San Diego NAACP, which criticized Marten, notably broke from the national NAACP in 2019 when it opposed a national call for a moratorium on charter schools. Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates cited that national NAACP position when they called for new limits on charter schools.

The national NAACP has also split with its San Diego branch on Marten’s nomination. National NAACP President Derrick Johnson called her “a great pick” by Biden.

But, in a joint statement, the National Charter Collaborative and the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools faulted Marten for her support of “extreme anti-charter school restrictions,” saying her selection nullifies the goodwill Biden earned by selecting Cardona.

Cardona won support from education groups across the ideological spectrum when he took a relatively neutral posture on charter schools, in part because the charter sector in his home state of Connecticut is smaller and less controversial. Even so, some GOP senators who voted against his confirmation cited Biden’s positions on charters and school choice, not Cardona’s.

While the U.S. Department of Education administers a grant program for charter schools, most decisions about governance are made at the state and local levels. Biden has pledged not to provide federal funding to “for-profit” charter schools and has said most of his education department’s efforts will focus on the “neighborhood public schools” that a majority of students attend.

Confronting disparities in school discipline

San Diego media outlets and local activists have flagged some other criticisms of Marten’s tenure.

The local NAACP focused most of its statement on disproportionately high rates of discipline for Black students in San Diego schools, a persistent problem at school systems around the country.

In 2019-20, Black students in San Diego Unified represented 7.5 percent of total enrollment and 17.9 percent of students suspended, state data show. Latino students made up 44.3 percent of enrollment and 53.3 percent of students suspended, while white students made up 23.9 percent of students and 13.8 percent of those suspended.

Statewide, Black students made up 5.4 percent of California’s enrollment and 15 percent of students suspended in 2019-2020, the data show.

The Learning Policy Institute report noted the district’s work to reduce discipline disparities by eliminating zero-tolerance policies and promoting restorative practices as an alternative to suspensions. And it noted that the district’s suspension rates were lower than some other large California districts’.

The district has also narrowed its list of expellable offenses in recent years.

The local NAACP noted voluntary racial equity training in the district.

“While this is commendable, it does not erase the fact that SDUSD has a history of harming our children, families, staff, and educators,” Katrina Hasan Hamilton, education chair of the San Diego branch, said in a statement.

The challenge of reopening schools

Much of Cardona’s confirmation hearing focused on his positions on coronavirus-related school closures and how federal officials can encourage schools to safely reopen.

The Biden administration has promised more guidance for schools about how to offer in-person learning or, for districts operating in a hybrid mode, to expand the amount of time students are taught in-person.

The president’s relief bill, which passed Congressthis week, also includes funding for testing, virus mitigation, and ongoing recovery efforts as schools help students rebound from interrupted education.

Much of that strategy aligns with Marten’s. In November, Marten wrote a letter to Biden’s transition team outlining how she’d worked with local scientists to design a COVID-19 testing and mitigation plan for her schools. She said equity should be a key focus in schools’ response efforts.

A majority of the district’s students have remained in remote learning as it waited to clear state virus rate thresholds required for reopening. San Diego Unified plans to reopen schools April 12.

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