ed sec spec

What a Michelle Rhee appointment would tell us about Donald Trump’s education plans

Donald Trump’s rounds in search of an education secretary include a meeting this weekend with Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chief and StudentsFirst founder.

If she is offered and accepts the position, here are five reasonable conclusions we can draw:

1. Trump’s cabinet will contain some diversity of opinion when it comes to undocumented immigrants.

Trump campaigned on promises of ridding the country of people who came here illegally. That includes, he has said, children and young adults who immigrated illegally with their families — people who would be protected by a federal DREAM Act that fell short multiple times in recent years. Rhee came out in favor of the DREAM Act in 2011, citing her direct experience with families who would be protected by it.

“Immigration is not my area of expertise, but I know that the current policy has implications for our education system and isn’t working for kids,” she wrote in a blog post announcing her position. “No child should be forced to live in the shadows and hide their identity, nor should any teacher or mentor have to cover up the truth.”

Many educators have been hoping that the Trump administration will adjust its hard-line position to include amnesty for children brought here by their parents. If Rhee is nominated, she could open the door for the idea to at least get a hearing.

2. Trump meant it when he said he’d champion school choice.

How much is Trump planning to follow through on his campaign promises? In education, one big vow he made was to use federal funds to encourage states to make school choice available to all poor students, including through publicly operated charter schools and vouchers that allow families to take public funding to private schools.

Rhee famously broke with Democratic party dogma three years ago after announcing support for vouchers, so she’s a true believer. If she comes out of her meeting with Trump wanting to serve in his administration, we can assume he convinced her that he plans to move forward with his promises to embrace charter schools and vouchers.

That said, among voucher supporters, Rhee is relatively mild. In a 2012 interview with Education Week, she said she only favors vouchers for low-income students with no high-quality public school options. “This is not about choice for choice’s sake,” she said. Trump’s proposal would offer vouchers to poor families only, but his vice president, Mike Pence, has supported publicly funded private school vouchers for both low- and middle-income families.

3. As for ending Common Core — not so much.

The conservative movement that helped elect Trump cheered when he claimed on the campaign trail that he would end the Common Core standards. The standards are also opposed from the left, by teachers and parents fed up with the tests that standards bring and the test companies that publish them.

Rhee, though, falls with the Obama education reform mainline on this issue: She has strongly supported the Common Core as a path to improving schools for poor children and a way to prepare students for the global economy.

Avoiding the issue in a Trump administration would be relatively easy, complaints from a conservative base aside: Trump did promise to “end” Common Core on the campaign trail. But you can’t repeal something the federal government never actually passed.

4. Urban will still dominate rural — at least when it comes to the education secretary’s most direct experience.

Trump’s support came largely from rural voters, some of whom said the Obama administration hadn’t been attentive to their needs. Indeed, on education, the administration’s leaders did come almost entirely from cities — from Obama’s first education secretary, Arne Duncan, who had led the Chicago public schools, to the current education secretary, John King, who led charter schools in Boston and New York City.

Rhee also grew up in the education world serving big cities. She started in Baltimore, as a Teach For America corps member, then went on to work on urban teacher contract issues by founding The New Teacher Project (now called TNTP), and finally made her national reputation reshaping the public school district in Washington, D.C.

But Rhee has a long relationship with red states, too. StudentsFirst, the advocacy group she founded after leaving D.C., lobbied for laws curtailing seniority protections for teachers. Before it merged with another advocacy group last year, StudentsFirst gained the most traction in states such as Tennessee and Indiana where elected officials were less sympathetic to the concerns of teachers unions.

5. The education reform community Rhee helped to shape will face a new division: how to deal with Trump.

The education reform world as we currently know it arguably settled into place in 2009, when Barack Obama took office and eventually picked one side over the other in a heated debate over the future of public education.

Michelle Rhee was then the fierce chancellor of the D.C. public schools who spent her time firing principals and appearing on national magazine covers with a symbolic broom. In other words, she was the extreme edge of the side Obama picked when he chose Arne Duncan of Chicago as his education secretary and Duncan chose to go all out, if in a friendlier-than-Rhee way, for teacher evaluations and charter schools.

If Trump picks Rhee as his education secretary and she accepts, it could reshape the landscape of the education world again, shifting former allies to opposite sides. Already, we know that some hardcore reformers have come out strongly against any of their own accepting a role in a Trump administration. If Rhee joins the administration, her old friends will have to decide whether to follow that line of thinking and oppose her — or work with her.

 

 

uncertain future

Could Carmen Fariña be ousted if mayoral control expires? We asked the borough presidents, who may control her fate

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (center) unveils a new evaluation agreement with teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew (left)

When state lawmakers left the capitol Wednesday night without a deal on mayoral control of New York City schools, several questions went unresolved. One of them is whether Chancellor Carmen Fariña would retain her post if mayoral control lapses on July 1.

While no one is predicting her ouster, it’s one of many strange outcomes that could result if the education system’s governance structure is upended. With the session now over, legislators have until the end of the month to renew Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of the nation’s largest school system.

With the state Senate and Assembly still at odds, it remains possible that the law could expire — setting off a chain of events briefly initiated the last time it lapsed, in 2009.

If that happens again, the city will resurrect the city’s Board of Education, which consists of five members selected by each of the borough presidents and two appointed by the mayor. That board, in turn, has the power to select the chancellor. (In 2009, this went off without incident and the board unanimously decided to reappoint the sitting chancellor, Joel Klein.)

Yet, there’s no guarantee that would happen again. So we reached out to each of the five borough presidents to see if they would commit to backing Fariña. One borough president said “yes,” the others did not commit. The borough presidents spoke Thursday and requested a meeting with the mayor, according to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Still, it is early to make predictions — especially since the law has not even expired yet.

“In the immediate, there’s still time on the clock for Albany to act,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness in an email. “If mayoral control is to lapse, that could be a legitimate concern.”

For each borough president, we asked the question: If mayoral control lapses, would you commit to keeping Carmen Fariña as chancellor? Here’s what they said:

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Adams sent the most extensive statement, saying that although he strongly supports mayoral control, he has serious critiques of the education department’s leadership.

“I have repeatedly expressed my frustration with leadership at the DOE [Department of Education], who I do not believe are effectively carrying out Mayor de Blasio’s vision for improving our schools. Outstanding issues include underinvestment in school technology infrastructure, significant inequities in allocation of Fair Student Funding dollars, disparities in gifted and talented education, resistance to training and support for new learning devices like tablets, inaction on liberalizing school space usage policy for community-based organizations, and poor community notification on significant changes to school utilization. Regardless of who is in charge at Tweed, it is critical that impactful issues like these are addressed.

Ensuring that these issues are addressed is the only pledge or commitment I am comfortable making today.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

Brewer’s office gave the most direct answer. “The answer is yes,” wrote Jon Houston, her director of communications, in an email. But with Brewer’s vote and, assuming the mayor’s appointees all select Fariña, the board will still be one vote short of keeping the current chancellor.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz

Katz’s office said she would not fully commit to keeping Fariña, but her stance suggests she is not looking for a permanent shake-up.

“Borough President Katz is a firm believer in mayoral control, and has been throughout her entire tenure in public service,” said her spokeswoman in a statement. “She has worked very closely with Mayor de Blasio on the great work he’s done on education, and, as always, believes the mayor should remain responsible for the schools under mayoral control. Any app‎ointment she may have to make to a reconstituted Board of Education‎ would be temporary until mayoral control is re-extended.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Diaz’s office did not have a comment. But the last time this happened, he was the only borough president who refused to back the chancellor prior to the vote, though he did vote to retain him.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Oddo’s office did not have a comment. We’ll update this post if that changes.

tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

Now, about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.

 

Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.