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
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
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
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

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 A Deaf Student Says His School District Failed Him. The Supreme Court Will Decide
Miguel Luna Perez received inadequate assistance for 12 years, his suit says. The high court will decide if he can pursue money damages.
10 min read
Miguel Perez
Miguel Luna Perez in a 2016 yearbook photo as a senior at Sturgis High School in Michigan. Luna Perez, who is deaf, went on to the Michigan School for the Deaf in a settlement with his district but is seeking to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for the district's alleged failures to provide him adequate assistance to communicate.
Photo courtesy of Luna Perez family
Special Education 'Better Defined by Their Strengths': 5 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences
What are effective ways schools can support students with learning differences? Educators on social media weighed in.
3 min read
A diverse group of students wearing book bags and climbing ladders and books to assemble a large puzzle
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Special Education Q&A Why Special Education Research Is So Important Now
The outgoing commissioner of the National Center on Special Education Research outlines the challenges ahead.
5 min read
Illustration of data analysis.
sesame/DigitalVision Vectors
Special Education Special Education Funding Is 'Fundamentally Broken,' Researcher Says
Federal funding for special education services has stayed largely flat over the past two decades.
3 min read
A student visits a sensory room at Williams Elementary School, on Nov. 3, 2021, in Topeka, Kan.
A student visits a sensory room at Williams Elementary School in Topeka, Kan.
Charlie Riedel/AP