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Major Tensions Flare Over Education Secretary Before Joe Biden Even Picks One

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 18, 2020 5 min read
Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore Public Schools, third from left, speaks on a panel at Building the Tech Talent Pipeline in 2019 in Annadale, Va.
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The pandemic is ravaging education, but speculation about President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary is competing for attention as well. And a recent social-media fracas over potential picks has made one big-city schools leader the latest lightning rod for arguments about leadership, race, and “education reform.” It also serves as a reminder that such divisions predate—and will extend far beyond—U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her tenure.

Biden has said his education secretary would be someone with experience as a public school educator, and we don’t know a great deal beyond that. Among the names to surface recently as potentially a good fit for the role is Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises. Santelises has led that 79,000-student school system since 2016, has worked in Boston public schools, the Education Trust, and Teach For America, among other positions in education.

She’s also a member of Chiefs for Change and gotten support from Democrats for Education Reform. Those groups focus in different ways on issues ranging from test-based accountability systems and changes to traditional labor practices, to charter schools and equitable funding. But to their critics, the organizations Santelises is associated with have pushed in one way or another to undermine the idea of well-funded traditional public schools and teachers’ autonomy.

The Network for Public Education, which resists standardized tests and school choice, is one such critic. The group says Santelises, because of her links with such groups, would represent a continuation of a dozen years of failed federal leadership—more on that in a little while.

As part of a mid-November broadside against Santelises and others connected to so-called reform-oriented groups, the Network for Public Education’s executive director, Carol Burris, said schools “do not need” such a person leading the U.S. Department of Education. Burris added that schools “need a public school advocate [at the department] who believes in public ed.” Others echoed her concerns that such education officials should be kept away from the secretary’s job.

Those criticisms from the network and its supporters prompted counterattacks and a hashtag, #IStandWithSonja, from a disparate group of people who support her. PDK International CEO Joshua Starr, brightbeam CEO Chris Stewart, and activist DeRay Mckesson—who used to work in Baltimore public schools—were among those who have backed Santelises publicly and said attacks on her were ignorant, reactionary, and tied to Santelises’ position as a Black leader.

Santelises has received attention for her work on Baltimore schools’ curriculum, and drew praise last year for students’ improvement on state exams. We spoke with her last year for the “Big Ideas” special report from Education Week.

On Tuesday, Santelises declined to comment about the speculation linking her to the education secretary job or the Twitter tempest about the possibility. We don’t know whether she will be nominated for education secretary or if she’s in serious consideration for the job. It’s also unsafe to assume that a social-media dispute would affect what the Biden transition team or other people counseling the president think.

‘Someone Like Arne Duncan’

In an interview, Burris said that Santelises seems to be “talented” and someone who “sincerely cares about kids.” But she said Santelises’ history with groups like TFA and Chiefs for Change, and what her resume says about her values, is what really sets off alarm bells. (Burris did express concern about Santelises’ management of Baltimore schools, such as the city school board’s decision last year to hire a principal linked to concerns about questionable graduation rates.)

Burris also knocked Santelises for, in her view, having only minimal teaching experience—Santelises taught at a school in New York City that she founded.

Ultimately, Burris’ group and its supporters are “very frightened” about getting “burned” like they did in 2008 if someone like Santelises becomes the education secretary, Burris said.

That’s a reference to President Barack Obama’s nomination of Arne Duncan for education secretary. Duncan sailed through the confirmation process. But as time went on, he drew more hostility from those who said his focus on school accountability and promotion of charter schools represented attacks on teachers and traditional public schools. In 2014, the National Education Association called on Duncan to resign.

“I’m not so worried about Betsy DeVos. I’m worried about someone like Arne Duncan slipping in there,” Burris said.

Burris said allegations that she and others were attacking Santelises’ status due to her race were “blatantly unfair, and it’s blatantly untrue.” She stressed that the Network for Public Education supports other people of color for education secretary, such as Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. In general, she said, it would be “great advantage” for a person of color to get the job.

“There are a lot of other people who are leaders of color who are far more aligned with the values of public schools and public school teachers” than Santelises, Burris said.

But that argument is ultimately a fig leaf, said Sharif El-Mekki, the CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a supporter of Santelises. He said Santelises has “dedicated her entire career to the very students who America has chosen to leave behind.”

“What I see is a multitalented woman who’s always been in positions of leadership and advocating for and pushing for children who look like the very ones I see suffering across this country,” El-Mekki said. Her critics, meanwhile, are making declarations educational disparities and challenges “that don’t impact their children or grandchildren, didn’t impact them or their careers when they were in schools,” he added. (For what it’s worth, El-Mekki said he likes Duncan and was a fellow at the Education Department during Duncan’s tenure as secretary.)
He said attempts to dodge allegations of racism by pointing to people of color they support are no better than those who “trot out” black friends to rebut such criticisms.

“They should be listening far more than they talk,” El-Mekki said of groups like the Network for Public Education and their allies. “What we want are people who’ve actually been in these schools.”

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