Three long-standing presidential commissions designed to expand educational opportunities for non-white students are set to expire Saturday and members say months of silence from the White House has them worried they’re about to be dissolved.
The presidential advisory commissions on educational excellence for black, Hispanic, and Asian American and Pacific Islander students in K-12 schools and on college campuses have not met since President Donald Trump took office in January. Although members of the groups have reached out, the White House has not responded.
“We assume that silence indicates a lack of interest,” said Patricia Gándara, a member of the Hispanic commission who is a research professor and co-director at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The existence of the three initiatives dates to 1990, the year former President George H.W. Bush commissioned the oldest of the three, the initiative for Hispanic education.
Former advisers to both Democratic and Republican presidents, as well as a former education secretary, credit the groups with linking past administrations with experts and advocates that shaped White House education policy.
“If the folks in government will engage and will look for serious input, these are important things,” Sandy Kress, a top education adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration, said of the advisory commissions. “You either use them to the benefit of better policy or you don’t.”
White House Silence
Appointees to the African-American and Hispanic commissions, many of whom are educators, helped launch President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which sought to improve education and expand opportunities for black, Latino and Native American boys. The program lives on as a nonprofit and recently merged with the Obama Foundation.
“The commissions were important places for us to reach out to these communities and engage people around issues that were important to them,” said Roberto Rodríguez, who worked in the White House as one of Obama’s top education advisers.
Trump administration officials this week said they had no information about the future status of the commissions whose charters are set to expire.
“The White House has no announcements on these initiatives at this time,” a White House spokesman told Education Week.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has not met with the respective chairpersons to discuss the future of the commissions since taking office in February. The lack of communication with the White House has left some commissioners wondering if their voices are valued in an administration that many of them view as hostile to communities of color.
A dozen members of the Hispanic commission—including National Education Association President Lily Eskelen García, Gandára, JoAnn Gama, the superintendent of the Texas-based IDEA charter school network, and Kent Scribner, the superintendent of schools in Fort Worth, Texas—issued a statement earlier this month calling on Trump to meet with them about renewing the initiative and commission.
The letter called the administration’s decision to terminate Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that shields some young undocumented immigrants from deportation, a “cruel attack” on Latino youth.
The Trump administration has yet to respond.
Already, mass resignations had decimated the ranks of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; 16 of the 20 members have resigned since Trump’s election. Six members stepped down before Inauguration Day. Ten more resigned in February in protest of Trump’s policies, citing his “portrayal of immigrants, refugees, people of color, and people of various faiths as untrustworthy.”
Diana Yu, the chief of staff for the AAPI initiative who held the same position during the Obama administration, referred questions about the commission to the White House.
Several members of the African-American commission contacted by Education Week deferred comment to chairman Freeman Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to answer questions about the status of the commission. Monique Toussaint, a senior adviser to the White House Initiative on African Americans who also worked in that role during the Obama administration, did not respond to an interview request.
Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, referred questions on the future of those programs to the White House.
The Trump administration still has a number of leadership posts to fill in the Education Department, but did appoint an executive director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities this month.
The president signed an executive order in February that moved the initiative to the White House, transferring responsibility from the Education Department. It is unclear if the administration plans to take a similar approach with its initiatives on Asian American and Pacific Islander, black and Hispanic students.
John B. King Jr, the second education secretary during the Obama administration, co-chaired the AAPI initiative during his tenure. He said the groups “have played an integral role in highlighting persistent opportunity gaps, improving educational outcomes, and ensuring that more students of color can reach their full potential.”
Guidance from the White House and the Education Department has also lapsed with a fourth group, the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.
“I hope that the work we did continues whether it’s the current council or whatever,” said the council’s chairwoman, Superintendent Deborah Jackson-Dennison of the 1,600-student San Carlos, Ariz., schools. “It’s really important in Indian Country where we’re passionate about fighting for the neediest children in the country.”
Unlike the commissions, the council on Indian education’s charter does not expire this weekend.
Since the 1965 passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s original federal K-12 law, “we became committed as a nation to better [educate] disadvantaged youngsters, youngsters who had faced discrimination,” Kress said. “This is a priority of the country and it was a priority of every administration.”
That priority—and the work of the commissions—remains important in an era when the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms now exceeds the number of non-Hispanic whites, King and Rodríguez said.
“You can trace a decades-long history of both Republican and Democratic administrations committing themselves to these initiatives because they’re focused on the work of closing opportunity and achievement gaps,” Rodríguez said.
“That imperative still stands today,” he said. “It’s important to continue this work regardless of the administration in the White House.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as Education Advisers Say White House Has Ignored Them