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.)
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.
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