Americans are still voting for president, and it’s not clear when we’ll have a winner. But a major education reform group already has a short list of preferred candidates for the education secretary post in a Biden administration.
Democrats for Education Reform is coordinating a behind-the-scenes push for Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson, the head of Baltimore schools Sonja Brookins Santelises, or Philadelphia superintendent William Hite, according to an email sent to supporters Monday by the group’s president Shavar Jeffries and obtained by Chalkbeat. All three, Jeffries wrote, would represent a “‘big tent’ approach to education policy making.”
Translation: Political realities mean that someone who has championed a specific brand of education reform isn’t likely to be Biden’s pick. But it’s possible for the choice to be someone who’s worked closely with charter schools while running a big-city school district — rather than someone affiliated with a major teachers union, for instance, whose tent might be too small for Democrats for Education Reform.
“Our primary goal is to persuade Biden to support — and to appoint a Secretary of Education who supports — innovation, public-school choice, and accountability,” Jeffries wrote, urging recipients to reach out to top Biden associates and offering talking points to help make their case. “This work remains an uphill battle.”
Jackson, Santelises, and Hite are leaders of major school systems. Jackson has overseen Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, since 2017. Santelises has led Baltimore City Public Schools since 2016. And Hite has run schools in Philadelphia since 2012.
A spokesperson for Hite said he was not aware of the DFER email and declined to comment further. A spokesperson for Jackson also declined to comment. And a spokesperson for Santelises had not responded to a request for comment as of Tuesday afternoon. A DFER spokesperson said the organization had not reached out to Hite, Jackson, or Santelises in advance of its email.
The three schools chiefs are Black and have focused on improving education for students from low-income families and students of color.
All three also oversee schools in cities where lots of students attend charter schools. In Philadelphia, about one in three public school students attends a charter school, while in Baltimore, about one in five do. In Chicago, it’s about 15%.
They are each now navigating the challenges of leading a large urban school district during a pandemic. Their districts are still operating virtually, but have tentative plans to bring some students back for in-person learning later this fall.
All are former public school teachers, too — something Biden has said is a prerequisite for the job. Jackson began her career as a high school social studies teacher before rising through the administrator ranks in Chicago. Santelises started her career with Teach for America, taught for three years in New York City, and spent time as the Baltimore district’s chief academic officer. Hite began as a marketing teacher, and was later the head of Prince George’s County schools in Maryland.
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The key question is whether DFER’s advocacy has a chance of swaying a Biden transition team or is more likely to harm the chances of their preferred choices.
What could help DFER is that it has secured the support of noted civil rights groups. Jeffries said in his note that the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, among other groups, have signed onto its advocacy push. DFER was influential during the Obama administration, and has continued to play an advocacy role within the Democratic party.
“Since early in the primary season, our team has been in regular contact with the Vice President’s team, sharing our national and swing state polling, and elevating our innovative policy agenda,” Jeffries wrote in a separate email to supporters Tuesday morning.
In general, though, DFER has found some of its favored policies moving further from the Democratic Party’s mainstream. As a presidential candidate, Biden has proposed a slew of new federal restrictions on charter schools and been critical of standardized testing — a clear shift from the Obama administration, which promoted the growth of charter schools and teacher evaluations linked to test scores.
“It is certainly the Biden plan,” the campaign’s policy director Stef Feldman said at a recent event, describing the candidate’s agenda for schools. “The vice president is pretty committed to the concept that we need to be investing in our public neighborhood schools and we can’t be diverting funding away from them.”
A number of factors have driven the shift within the Democratic party — including disillusionment with Obama-era reforms, the increased political strength of teachers and their unions, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is highly unpopular among Democrats and became a figurehead for school choice.
This shifting ground is reflected in DFER’s recent policy agenda, which was signed onto by a few civil rights groups; the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank; and major charter school organizations, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The document emphasizes areas of likely agreement with a Biden administration, including expanding access to early childhood education, increasing federal funding for low-income students and students with disabilities, and raising teacher pay. Charter schools get only a brief mention in a section about “choices in quality public schools.”
Polls have shown support for charter schools among Democrats has waned, though Democratic voters of color remain more supportive, a fact DFER emphasizes in its email to supporters.
DFER’s recommendations add to a growing group of names being floated to succeed Betsy DeVos — if Biden wins — including leaders from the nation’s largest teachers unions.
The Washington Post reported this weekend that Biden is considering AFT president Randi Weingarten or former NEA leader Lily Eskelsen García. Both unions have endorsed Biden and donated to his campaign.
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In interviews this week, Weingarten and Becky Pringle, the current NEA president, both declined to comment on potential selections for a Biden education secretary, saying they were focused on getting him elected. If that happens, Pringle said, the NEA will be looking for Biden to choose an education secretary who will promote racial and social justice in schools, who respects teachers, and is willing to work with teachers unions.
“It’s not about releasing a list to the public,” she said. “It is about partnering with them to get the person that I just described as Secretary of Education.”