U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota, will soon have a chance to ask several questions of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education.
That’s because Franken serves on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Marc Kimball, state director of communications for Franken, recently confirmed in a phone call that the committee will meet with DeVos as part of her confirmation process.
Here are several issues that I hope Franken will consider raising. You may want to suggest these or others.
1. Promoting safety, respect and optimism among students.
If students are frightened, intimidated or bullied, they learn much less.
A recent national poll of more than 10,000 educators, conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that since the election: “Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact. A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families. Also on the upswing: verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language, and disturbing incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags.”
The SPLC acknowledged that this was not a scientific poll, noting that respondents were not a representative sample: “(Respondents) may have been more likely to perceive problems than those who did not.”
However, I agree with the SPLC’s conclusions: “The tremendous number of responses as well as the overwhelming confirmation of what has been anecdotally reported in the media cannot be ignored or dismissed.” More information about the poll can be found at http://bit.ly/2fzqiKg.
2. School choice, which Trump says he wants to expand to include private and parochial schools.
Minnesota offers lessons about choice, as we have within-district and cross-district schools, magnet schools, teacher-led schools, charter public schools, dual-credit programs (credit for high school and college) and tax credits. We’ve found that choice can promote widespread improvements – for example, districts added more dual-credit courses in response to Postsecondary Enrollment Options. But I think we’ve wisely avoided providing per-pupil funds to private and parochial K-12 schools.
3. Educating students with some form of disability.
Congress requires that these students be served appropriately but does not come close to providing the amount of funding that it originally promised. Will DeVos recommend an increase or other changes in these programs to make them more efficient?
4. Other priorities for improving pre-K-12 schools.
There was little discussion during the campaign about K-12 education. Other than choice, what priorities does DeVos have?
5. Postsecondary education.
Most jobs require a one- or two-year certificate or a four-year diploma, but many families are suffering from huge college debt. Completion and graduation rates are quite low at many institutions. College access, cost and quality urgently need more attention.
6. Learning from success.
The U.S. Department of Education honors many schools, but it could do much more to help educators and families learn from the most effective.
It’s worth noting that people disagree about DeVos. Dan Quisenberry, who I’ve known and respected for years, is president of the Michigan charter school association. He’s worked with DeVos and believes she is “a passionate education reformer (who) has high expectations for schools to perform academically and will hold all schools, including charters, accountable for results.” Others, including, for example, presidents of national teacher unions, have strongly criticized her.
DeVos has written: “I am committed to transforming our educational system into the best in the world. However, out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin the confirmation process.” (Read more from her at betsydevos.com/qa.)
Only about 10 percent of the funding for public schools comes from Congress, but that’s still more than $68 billion. Equally important, the head of the U.S. Department of Education can speak out on many issues. The department also can increase or decrease regulations on U.S. schools.
Fortunately, Franken can ask DeVos for details and encourage her to consider what’s happening in Minnesota.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]