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.