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Serve or steer clear? Education reformers grapple with whether to join Trump’s team

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

For the education world, Donald Trump’s surprise victory last week is being followed by another surprise: strong signals that he is considering naming a U.S. education secretary who comes from the reform movement that pushes for school choice, higher standards, and greater accountability.

Trump met with New York City charter school mogul Eva Moskowitz this week before she took herself out of the running. His transition team also expressed interest in former Washington D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.

The overtures put backers of the reform movement in a bind. Should they support a move to put one of their own in a position of major influence, even if it means associating themselves with Trump’s often racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric? Or should they eschew an association with Trump — and lose an opportunity to move their agenda forward?

One prominent education reform lobbying group has offered a clear answer, warning Democrats on Thursday to stay away from the Trump administration.

“It is, generally speaking, an honor for any person of any political persuasion to be asked by the President of the United States to consider a Cabinet-level appointment,” Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries said in a strongly worded statement.

“But in the case of President-elect Trump, DFER encourages no Democrat to accept an appointment to serve as Secretary of Education in this new administration. In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.”

DFER formed in 2007 with the goal of influencing the Democratic Party’s education policy platform in the 2008 election and beyond.

The group said Thursday that it would support a Democrat for Trump administration leader only if Trump “disavows his prior statements” and makes a series of education policy commitments.

But not everyone shares DFER’s position that accepting a Trump appointment would be inappropriate. When Moskowitz made her announcement Thursday, she seemed less focused on Trump’s campaign rhetoric — leaders often change when they take office, she said — than on her desire to remain in New York.

And others say the chance to influence the national conversation about education, and the students who attend schools across the country, would be too important to pass up.

“If a Democrat has an opportunity to serve, they should, so the extreme Trump ideology about immigrants and other minorities don’t make its way to the people,” said Mendell Grinter, who leads the Campaign for School Equity in Tennessee and has worked with several reform-oriented groups. “From an education reform perspective … I’d hate to have someone who isn’t reform-minded or doesn’t understand the need for accountability to serve in that role.”

“As painful as it would be for someone who is a Democrat to work in a Trump administration, I think it would have an impact,” said Ilya Kremerman, a parent of Success Academy students in New York.

And Ross Izard, senior education policy analyst with the Denver-based Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the last thing education reform advocates should do is step away and refuse to consider playing a role in the Trump administration.

“The election happened. The results are what they are,” Izard said. “But for the reform community more broadly — and especially people who believe in the power of choice for students from underserved communities — it’s a huge opportunity to have influence in a way that is maybe greater than with someone with more clearly defined education goals.”

If Trump doesn’t succeed at convincing a reform-minded Democrat to take the helm of the education department, he’s not out of options. Many believe his short list still includes plenty of conservatives, according to Education Week, which is keeping tabs on his potential picks here.

Any of those potential appointees will have to grapple with the same question, said Chris Cerf, the state-appointed superintendent in Newark, New Jersey.

“The most important thing is that the secretary be aligned with the president’s vision and mission. And if there’s a misalignment, he or she shouldn’t be offered the job, and she or he shouldn’t accept the job,” Cerf said. “I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”

Eric Gorski, Elizabeth Green, Grace Tatter, and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Rolling Back Protections

Colorado’s transgender students will still get to use the bathrooms they choose despite Trump’s order. Here’s why

Six-year-old Coy Mathis in 2013. The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that her Fountain school violated her civil rights when it denied her access to the girl's restroom.

Colorado students shouldn’t have to worry about new guidance from the Trump administration that rescinds federal protections for transgender students because of existing state law here.

Colorado lawmakers in 2008 passed a law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in public places — including schools.

That law was put to the test in 2013 when a 6-year-old transgender student in Fountain was denied access to a girls’ restroom. The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that Eagleside Elementary School violated Coy Mathis’s rights to use the restroom that best aligned with her gender identity.

The ruling was considered a landmark victory for transgender rights in the state and elsewhere.

In 2016, the Obama administration attempted to shore up protections for transgender students under Title IX, the federal statute that since 1972 has outlined protections for students based on sex.

But a federal court blocked the U.S.Department of Education from enforcing schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice.

Now, the Trump administration is revoking those protections in a move announced Wednesday.

The result: protections for transgender students in some states, such as Colorado, but not in others. Thirty three states have no local laws protecting transgender students’ rights to use the restroom of their choice.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — who reportedly urged Trump not to roll back the Obama-era protections — said in a statement the department was committed to protecting the rights of all students, but added the issue should be left to states and local school districts.

“Schools, communities, and families can find – and in many cases have found – solutions that protect all students,” she said. “We owe all students a commitment to ensure they have access to a learning environment that is free of discrimination, bullying and harassment.”

Civil rights groups were quick to criticize the new order.

“This is a serious attack by the Trump Administration on transgender students; opening them up to harassment, discrimination, and violence in their schools,” said One Colorado, the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group. “No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at their school or college campus. Luckily, Colorado has been on the right side of this issue for years, by including sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination law, passed in 2008.”

Update: This post has been updated to include a comment from One Colorado.

Newcomers

Indianapolis Public Schools board votes tomorrow on a resolution to support undocumented students. We annotated it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The Indianapolis Public School board can’t protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. But it can do its best to reassure families that school is still safe.

The board will vote Thursday on a largely symbolic resolution to show support for undocumented students.

The move comes amid rising tensions over the Trump administration’s plans to crack down on undocumented immigrants. At recent meetings parents have spoken to the board about families’ fears, and teachers have struggled to reassure anxious students.

“We’ve heard concerns from a number of immigrant students and families,” said board president Mary Ann Sullivan. “We want to communicate our commitment to serving and supporting them in every way we can.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said that the district is already working to serve immigrant students.

“I don’t see it changing our work and what we do already,” he said. “This is the commissioners’ way, and the administration’s, of assuring families that we will continue to maintain the welcoming environment that we have.”

What follows is the full text of the resolution. We’ve annotated it with links to our past coverage and context. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.

RESOLUTION NO. 7736 – February 23rd, 2017
REAFFIRMING THE COMMITMENT TO CREATING A SAFE AND SUPPORTIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT FOR ALL STUDENTS REGARDLESS OF IMMIGRATION STATUS

WHEREAS, Indianapolis Public Schools (“IPS”) is committed to creating a safe, supportive, and welcoming learning environment regardless of, among other things, race, religion, nationality, sexual identity, ability, or immigration status; and

WHEREAS, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe (1982) recognized the injustice of placing discriminatory burdens on the basis of legal characteristics over which children have no control, and held it unconstitutional to deny a free, public education to children who are not legally admitted into the United States; and

WHEREAS, the Board of School Commissioners recognizes the tremendous value and diversity that immigrant students and families bring to the school district; and

WHEREAS, the Board approved the establishment of a Newcomer Program in April 2016 to provide additional academic and community supports to students and families that have recently immigrated to the United States; and

WHEREAS, the Board of School Commissioners, and every person in its employ, is committed to standing with, and supporting, all IPS students and families to the fullest extent possible while complying with all local, state, and federal law;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, by the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis, that to the extent permitted by applicable law:

  • IPS will remain a safe and welcoming place for all students and families regardless of their immigration status;
  • IPS policies against intimidation, bullying, or discrimination of any student, including those born outside of the United States or for whom English is a second language, will continue to be strictly enforced to ensure that all students are treated with dignity and respect;
  • IPS will continue to seek opportunities to increase and enhance programs and partnerships that support and assist immigrant students and families;
  • IPS employees shall continue to follow the policy and practice of not requiring social security numbers for any enrolled or enrolling student and will continue to refrain from inquiring about a student’s or parent’s immigration status;
  • As in the past, IPS employees will not collect or provide any information regarding a student’s (or his/her family’s) immigration status, except as legally required;
  • The Board supports U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that restricts enforcement actions by ICE officers and agents in or around schools, and reminds IPS employees that they shall not assist immigration enforcement efforts unless legally required and authorized to do so by the Superintendent.

The foregoing Resolution No. 7736 was passed by the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis this 23rd day of February, 2017.