Special Education

Democrats Grill Ed. Dept. Nominees on School Choice Priorities

By Alyson Klein — November 28, 2017 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Washington

Senate education committee Democrats used the recent confirmation hearing of two top U.S. Department of Education nominees to make their case against the Trump administration’s favorite K-12 policy: school choice.

Both contenders have long records in pushing for charters, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and other types of school choice programs. Mick Zais, who has been tapped for deputy secretary of education, the No. 2 post at the agency, helped create a tax-credit scholarship for students in special education when he was the state chief in South Carolina.

And Jim Blew, the nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy analysis, 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. (The Walton foundation provides support to Education Week for coverage of parent engagement and involvement issues.)

Jim Blew The nominee for a top policy advisory spot is a strong school choice advocate.
Mick Zais The former South Carolina chief is the nominee for deputy secretary of education.

Both came under scrutiny from the minority party in their Nov. 15 turn before the committee.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat, kicked off the hearing by saying that she finds it “troubling” that Zais shares Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ views on the “privatization” of public education. And she told Blew that his “record of promoting school vouchers gives me pause that you will not stand up for students and public schools.”

Senator after senator on the Democratic side of the dais echoed those concerns.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., for instance, asked Zais if he was aware that the research on the efficacy of school choice is “abysmal.”

Zais said that, in his experience, broadening educational options improves student outcomes. But he agreed with Franken that the evidence for that is “anecdotal.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked Blew if he thought students in special education should have to give up their rights to take advantage of a voucher program, as she said that students in Florida who use McKay scholarships must.

Blew said that any school that takes federal funds has to follow the law, including protections for students in special education.

Charters’ Performance

And later Murray asked Blew if she thought that the charter sector in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, which has been criticized for its lack of accountability, is a model for the nation.

Blew cited a Stanford University study that he says shows students in Detroit charter schools perform better than their peers in public schools. Murray countered that that’s different from what she has seen in the research.

Zais took heat, too, for his record in South Carolina, where he served as state chief from 2011 to 2015.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked him about a 2015 bill in the South Carolina legislature calling for the National Rifle Association to craft a curriculum for K-12 students. Murphy asked if political organizations should be allowed to design curriculum for K-12 schools.

Zais told him no, they shouldn’t. And he said he didn’t remember supporting that bill, even though he is in favor of students learning about the Second Amendment.

Several Democrats grilled Zais on his comments to the South Carolina press that it didn’t make sense to spend money on 5-year-olds because they can’t learn.

“I do not recall having said that,” Zais said, and he talked about the learning his young grandchildren experienced before age 5. He said he supports early-childhood education but sees it as a state issue.

The hearing also touched on a number of other hot-button issues and some of the Trump Education Department’s missteps.

For instance, Alexander asked Zais if he’s aware of the prohibitions against the Education Department in the Every Student Succeeds Act. He noted that the Education Department can’t tell a state that its student-achievement goals aren’t “ambitious enough,” as DeVos’ department initially told Delaware.

Zais said he wasn’t familiar with Delaware’s situation but seemed to agree with Alexander that the federal role should be limited.

And Murray also asked Zais if he agreed with comments by Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, to The New York Times that 90 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol and breakups.

Zais said he wasn’t familiar with those comments, but seemed to agree that sexual assault should be taken seriously. (Jackson is slated to be replaced by Kenneth Marcus, the president of the Jewish Center for Human Rights. He has yet to have his confirmation hearing.)

Overall, it looks like both Blew and Zais are headed for confirmation—the hearing was relatively fireworks-free, and nothing unexpected came up that would seem likely to derail either nominee. Republicans hold the majority in the Senate and are likely to vote to confirm both Blew and Zais.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as Democrats Grill Ed. Dept. Nominees on School Choice Priorities

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
Science K-12 Essentials Forum How To Teach STEM Problem Solving Skills to All K-12 Students
Join experts for a look at how experts are integrating the teaching of problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking into STEM instruction.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education L.A. Agrees to Do More After Failing on Special Education. Could Other Districts Be Next?
The district failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education found.
6 min read
Conceptual image of supporting students.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Source images: DigitalVision Vectors and iStock/Getty)
Special Education Protect Students With Disabilities as COVID Rules Ease, Education Secretary Tells Schools
Even as schools drop precautions like mask requirements, they must by law protect medically vulnerable students, a letter emphasizes.
3 min read
Image of a student holding a mask and a backpack near the entrance of a classroom.
E+
Special Education Hearing, Vision ... Autism? Proposal Would Add Screening to School-Entry Requirements
Nebraska legislators consider a first-in-the-nation mandate to assess all children for autism before the start of school.
5 min read
Image of a student working with an adult one-on-one.
mmpile/E+
Special Education Florida Changed Rules for Special Education Students. Why Many Say It’s Wrong
The new rule contains a more specific definition of what it means to have a “most significant cognitive disability.”
Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times
7 min read
Richard Corcoran, the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education sits next to Florida Department of Education Board Chair Andy Tuck as they listen to speakers during Thursday morning's Florida Department of Education meeting. The board members of the Florida Department of Education met Thursday, June 10, 2021 at the Florida State College at Jacksonville's Advanced Technology Center in Jacksonville, Fla. to take care of routine business but then held public comments before a vote to remove critical race theory from Florida classrooms.
Richard Corcoran, Florida’s education commissioner, and Andy Tuck, the chair of the state’s board of education, listen to speakers at a meeting  in June.
Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP