next steps

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.

legislative look-back

Holcomb pulls off a near-perfect education record in his first session as Indiana governor, and with far less drama than in years past

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb managed a rare feat in his first year on the job — to check nearly every box on his education agenda for 2017.

At the beginning of the year, Holcomb set four specific goals for K-12 education: making the state superintendent appointed by 2021; doubling state funding for preschool; adding funding  for school internet access; and better coordinating science, technology, engineering and math initiatives across the state.

It wasn’t always clear whether those proposals would pass. But Holcomb was ultimately able to get what he wanted with fairly little drama — unlike his predecessor, Vice President Mike Pence.

“The legislature over-delivered,” Holcomb said Tuesday. “Now it’s time for us to take these tools and new resources and put them to work.”

Holcomb’s success likely hinged both on his collaborative approach to working with lawmakers — in contrast to the more ideological and aggressive approaches, respectively, of former Gov. Pence and his predecessor, Gov. Mitch Daniels — and the less controversial makeup of his education priorities.

Pence failed to make much progress when he tried to break new ground in some way — like with plans to re-imagine teachers’ roles in schools — or when he faced vehement opposition, like his attempts to further reduce union negotiating power. Holcomb’s priorities, for the most part, were harder to argue with: a need for more preschool for poor children, better school internet access or more opportunities to prepare kids for the workforce and science- and math-related fields.

Although Pence was ultimately able to push through many of his education priorities, such as establishing a preschool program, driving up career and technical education funding, and increasing support for charter schools and vouchers, his efforts brought more opposition from lawmakers, even those in his own party.

Take preschool.

When Pence put out the call for a state-funded pilot program after years of debate, senators were extremely skeptical. In the waning days of the 2014 session, they stripped any meaningful investment from the bill, turning it instead into a suggestion to study the issue over the summer. At the last minute, after Pence himself testified before lawmakers, the funding was restored, and the program became a reality.

This year, the same last-ditch attempts to kill the proposal were absent. After the Senate proposed only increasing preschool spending by $4 million, lawmakers came back with a $20 million-per-year plan in line with Holcomb’s initial ask.

Holcomb also had the benefit of not having to go head-to-head with the state schools chief.

Pence’s frequent battles with then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz were a notable part of his administration. Current Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, on the other hand, was fairly aligned with Holcomb’s goals from the beginning — even signing on to support his call to make her position appointed, rather than elected, in the future.

That’s the one area in his education policy agenda where Holcomb didn’t eke out a full win — but it was arguably also the most controversial part of his agenda, with many educators and some lawmakers asserting that the move takes away an independent education voice at the Statehouse. The proposal has been debated in some way for more than 30 years.

Holcomb originally supported a 2021 start date for the appointment, which would allow him to make the appointment if elected to a second term. Instead, this year’s legislation would have it begin in 2025, meaning McCormick could seek a second term and Holcomb wouldn’t be the executive empowered to make the first secretary of education pick.

Holcomb said Tuesday that he has no desire to revisit that legislation in order to change the effective date.

He reiterated his goal of collaboration Tuesday when addressing reporters during a press conference, pointing to his relationship with McCormick.

“We’ll continue to meet and collaborate and work on issues that we both know are of the utmost importance,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll get there together. I look forward to it.”

As far as bills that weren’t on his agenda, Holcomb today said he plans to sign into law Senate Bill 567, which would appoint emergency financial managers in the Gary and Muncie school districts. He also indicated support for House Bill 1003, which would replace the state’s ISTEP test with a new program to be called “ILEARN” in 2019.

You can find other education bills that moved ahead this session here in our legislative wrap-up.

social studies

Tennessee’s long journey to new social studies standards nears its finish line

Tennessee is one step closer to having new social studies standards after almost 1½ years of unprecedented public scrutiny and feedback.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Friday to move ahead with a revision that was begun partly out of concern over how Islam is being taught in seventh-grade world history.

Now receiving attention is the question of whether too much Tennessee history is being removed from standards that most everyone agrees were over-laden with material.

The proposed draft, which will undergo a final vote in July, reduces the number of standards overall by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

Members of the Standards Recommendation Committee have presented the proposal as striking the right balance.

“There’s an infinite number of people and facts that are significant, and we can’t include them all,” said Todd Wigginton, who led the teacher review and is director of instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But Bill Carey, one of the panel’s nine members, offered a dissenting opinion to the section for grades 1-5.

“In these standards, the Plateau of Tibet is mentioned twice but the Cumberland Plateau is never mentioned,” said Carey, who is executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “… I think a case can be made that there’s too much of Tennessee missing.”

Wigginton said the idea behind the final draft is that teachers should have more flexibility, and focus more on important concepts.

He said Tennessee’s new standards asked students to consider, for example, the significance of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, rather than memorize a list of people and dates.

The state spearheaded a laborious review for social studies beginning in January 2016 after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the new standards.

The draft reflects tens of thousands comments from hundreds of Tennessee residents over the course of two public reviews, as well as nearly 100 hours of meetings by the committee. That panel, along with a team of educators who reviewed public feedback last summer, created standards that they say allows teachers flexibility and the freedom to go in-depth, while also covering key topics.

Unlike many other states, Tennessee hasn’t cordoned off Tennessee history to specific units for nearly two decades, choosing instead to “embed” state-specific facts across all grades. Carey said he’s made a career out of helping teachers incorporate Tennessee material into their history classes. He noted that several state historical associations and museums have raised concerns too about the final draft.

“In my opinion, for embedding to work, Tennessee topics have to be clearly spelled out in the standards,” said Carey, who submitted a minority report to share his concerns. “If they’re not, teachers won’t get the message that they have to cover Tennessee history.”

Jason Roach, a former social studies teacher and now principal of Mooresburg Elementary School in Hawkins County, said those terms could be incorporated into curriculum, even if they aren’t explicitly spelled out in the standards.

Standards lay out what students should know at each grade level, while curriculum includes the lessons and activities that students study and do throughout the school year.

“Tennessee history needs to be taught in Tennessee schools. I believe that,” Roach said. But, he continued, teachers should decide how to build curriculum on a local level, rather than the state over-prescribing what should be covered through the standards.

During a discussion Thursday about the final draft, board members offered praise about both the process and the results.

“You did an incredible job,” said Lillian Hartgrove, who represents part of Middle Tennessee. “I know it’s not exactly what everyone wanted … but what you have accomplished is truly incredible.”

Tennessee’s academic standards in all four core subject areas have been overhauled over the last three years, and social studies standards are the only ones still in the works.

If approved, the new Tennessee Academic Standards for Social Studies will reach the state’s classrooms in the 2019-2020 school year.