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How Biden Could Please the K-12 World by Picking an Education Secretary From Outside It

By Evie Blad — December 03, 2020 6 min read
President-elect Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del.

President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly promised to appoint an education secretary with public teaching experience, and it has been widely believed he is referring to a former K-12 teacher when he makes that pledge.
But there is an open door for Biden to appoint someone from the higher education sector instead. And a college or university president, particularly one who voices support for public schools, may be preferrable to an outspoken K-12 schools chief for some of his closest allies, like teachers’ unions. That’s particularly true of a school administrator with a history on hot-button issues, like charter schools, some education policy watchers say.
In many instances, Biden’s supporters who have strong views about K-12 policy are as vocal about what they don’t want—broad school improvement initiatives like Race to the Top—as what they do want—dramatic increases in federal spending on education.
Someone like a community college president could answer those resource concerns while taking a more hands-off approach on some issues that caused problems for past education secretaries, said Linda Perlstein, an associate director at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, who has advocated for an education secretary with college or university experience.
“I don’t know a single [community college president] who would say anything other than the fact that public school is at the core of our democracy and that public school teachers are doing the great and important work to sustain that,” she said. “If you are trying to get at people who understands the value proposition, that person doesn’t have to have taught kindergarten.”
Biden will name his pick for the cabinet role at a particularly precarious moment for federal K-12 education policy. The nation’s schools have been slammed by the dual fiscal and public health crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to questions about issues like state testing, as well as what students, educators, and schools need and who can best deliver it.
But it’s also a critical time for the higher education sector, and many of Biden’s campaign promises centered on issues like college affordability and student debt.
Meanwhile, control of the Senate hinges on two Georgia runoff elections next month, and Republican control could make it more difficult to get some of his candidates confirmed.

The Promise to Appoint a Public School Educator

For the broader public, Biden’s pledge to appoint a public school educator signaled a major departure from current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The billionaire Republican donor has been criticized for her lack of teaching experience and her lack of experience with public education in general; she attended private schools all the way through college and sent her children to private schools as well. That, coupled with her advocacy for vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, made her a particularly divisive and high-profile education secretary.
But for education activists and union leaders who closely follow policy debates, Biden’s promise may have also served to distance him from some initiatives of the Bush and Obama administrations, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Legislation and programs like the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top and the elevation of ideas from the business world “were felt by the K-12 education community as a marginalization of educators and their particular realms of expertise,” he said.
While DeVos was a popular punching bag in the Democratic presidential primary, teachers’ unions also once called for the resignation of Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Biden’s campaign hasn’t closed the door on appointing a “public school educator” from a public college or university.
“The vice president [Biden] hasn’t gone beyond saying it will be a person with public school experience, so I will leave it at that,” Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, said during an October webinar hosted by the Education Writer’s Association.
Perlstein and Henig noted that some potential K-12 picks, like urban school chiefs, have sparked swirls of arguments because of their record on tricky policy issues and their personal backgrounds. In November, we wrote about some resistance to rumored candidate Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Schools. The Network for Public Education, which resists standardized tests and school choice, criticized Santelises after she received support from groups like Democrats for Education Reform.
“The [potential nominees] who don’t carry the ed reform baggage may carry baggage that would present problems in the Senate with Republicans and some moderate Democrats if they are seen as too tightly connected with the teachers unions,” Henig said.

Big Higher Education Priorities

A college or university president may present a blank slate on some of those hot-button issues while also reassuring K-12 educators and unions that they understand their concerns.
“A higher education leader has never had to take a stance on charter schools,” Perlstein said.
The public often thinks of K-12 students when they consider the education secretary role because children are vulnerable and public schools are at the core of many communites. But the agency has a relatively light footprint in elementary and secondary education policy compared to state departments and local school districts, Perlstein said, and college students are also at the center of important policy debates.
“Who is more vulnerable than someone working two jobs and parenting a child and going to community college so they can stop being a gig worker whose livelihood has been taken away from them?” she said.
It’s also possible that Biden’s pick could have experience in both K-12 and higher education. Betty Rosa, New York’s interim state education commissioner, has been on a few wish lists, including that of incoming Democratic congressman and former public school principal Jamaal Bowman, of New York. Rosa, who started her career teaching English-language learners, has also taught graduate-level courses and serves as the president of the University of the State of New York.
Perlstein said she would like to see a community college leader in the role because they have strong relationships with K-12 schools and understand the importance of key issues to both sectors, including poverty, student supports, and post-secondary transitions. Regardless of their background, the education secretary can also rely on deputies to help guide efforts in other key areas for Biden, like education civil rights.
Some potential picks: Félix Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the City University of New York; Eduardo Padrón, the president emeritus of Miami Dade College; and Robert Jones, known for efforts to increase enrollment of low-income students as Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Also on many shortlists is Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“These choices make a difference no matter what, but I don’t think it’s an automatic straight line between having a former teacher in the role and getting to the exact policies other teachers will want to see, which, by the way, differ a lot,” Perlstein said. “Teachers are not a monolith.”

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