Lawmakers finally get get the chance Wednesday to question President Donald Trump’s picks for two of the most influential jobs at the U.S. Department of Education.
The biggest name is probably Mick Zais, the former South Carolina state chief who has been nominated for deputy secretary, the No. 2 position at the department. The other is Jim Blew, the former Walton Family Foundation director of K-12 reform, who has been tapped for assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy analysis—essentially the department’s Head Wonk.
Tim Kelly, who was nominated as assistant secretary of career and technical education, was also supposed to have had his confirmation hearing Wednesday. But the White House officially withdrew his nomination after it became clear he had written offensive comments about Muslims, low-income parents, and women in the sciences on his personal blog some years ago.
Both Blew and Zais appear likely to be confirmed. But they could face some tough questions during the confirmation process—for totally different reasons. Here’s why:
As South Carolina state schools chief, Zais fought against the Common Core State Standards, and cut the staff at the state education department by about 10 percent. He also turned down federal money that would have helped save teachers’ jobs, as well as a federal Race to the Top grant, which he worried came with too many strings. All of that could be fodder for questions from Democrats.
Zais got a lot of love from school choice groups in South Carolina, but his relationship with teachers, superintendents, and school board members was strained, to say the least.
“I had a 40-year career in South Carolina, and I never worked under or with a more inefficient superintendent in my career than Mick Zais,” said Tom Chapman, who was superintendent of South Carolina’s Anderson County schools during Zais’ tenure. “He was noncommunicative. He isolated himself at the state department. He would not communicate with superintendents at all.”
But Zais also has some fans in the state.
“As a retired general, Dr. Zais takes a no-nonsense, action-oriented approach to his work,” said Ellen Weaver, the president of the Palmetto Promise Institute, a South Carolina-based think tank.
Blew, the director of Student Success California, an advocacy group, has been a longtime player on the school choice scene. Blew spent nearly a decade as the Walton Family Foundation’s director of K-12 reform, advising the foundation on how to broaden schooling options for low-income communities. After that, he was the national president of StudentsFirst, an education redesign organization started by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He took that job in late 2014, when Rhee stepped down from the organization, serving until mid-2016, when StudentsFirst merged with 50CAN, a network of state advocacy organizations. (Student Success California is a 50CAN affiliate.) As of 2014, he was a registered Democrat.
Blew would be a great fit to help U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos advance her school choice agenda, said Marty West, a professor of education at Harvard University and a former aide to Sen. Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee’s chairman.
For one thing, West said, Blew understands that most of the action on school choice is going to be at the state level. And he has a lot of experience there.
“I’d expect him to focus his energies above all on making federal policy more accommodating of state-led school choice initiatives, something conservatives of all stripes should welcome,” West said in an email. “Jim also has the depth of knowledge and experience needed to attend to the office’s full range of responsibilities, including overseeing ESSA implementation in a manner consistent with congressional intent, and a track record of building support for education reform across party lines.”
But Blew also has his detractors, including in the tea party wing of the GOP. Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a right-leaning think tank, wrote recently that she’s unhappy with Blew’s nomination.
For one thing, she doesn’t like that the Walton foundation helped fund the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the organization started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which helped support the common core standards.
“Blew epitomizes the ‘government-foundation cartel’ model of educational policy-making,” she wrote in a blog post. “Theorists in private foundations, who may know little about education, advance their pet policies by 1) placing their people in positions of influence in federal and state governments, and 2) investing millions to propagate their theories and impose them on children and parents nationwide, utterly unaccountable for failure.”
It’s tough to imagine anyone on the Senate education committee echoing those arguments. But it’s always possible they could come up later in the confirmation process, when Blew’s nomination hits the broader Senate. (It probably won’t ultimately derail Blew, however.)
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