Who Donald Trump chooses to be his secretary of education will send powerful signals as to what the role of the U.S. Department of Education will be in a Trump presidency.
One intriguing name that has surfaced in recent days to head the department is Michelle Rhee, the former controversial chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools and founder of StudentsFirst, the advocacy group she founded that promoted a range of school reforms in numerous states, including an expansion of charter schools. Earlier this year it merged with the group 50Can. Trump is planning to meet with Rhee on Saturday in New Jersey, according to news reports in the Sacramento Bee and elsewhere..
Rhee has been based in California for the past several years, since marrying Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. She stepped down as head of StudentsFirst in 2014. In general, she has had an adversarial relationship with teachers unions, in part because of her firing of hundreds of teachers in DC schools, her efforts to reform teacher tenure, and her promotion of linking teacher evaluations to the test scores of their students. She has also been a strong proponent of charter schools, and has endorsed the notion of issuing tax-supported vouchers that could be used for tuition at private schools.
Other candidates being mentioned are Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Williamson (Bill) Evers of the Hoover Institution is reportedly on Trump’s education transition team, and in some reports, like this one in Education Week and another in the New York Times, is listed as a possible secretary.
Evers, whom Trump named to his transition team on education in September, has been a resident scholar and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1988. In 2007-08 he served as assistant secretary of the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. He also served as an education advisor to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
After gaining prominence in leading a successful fight to replace the math curriculum in Palo Alto, then-Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Evers to the state commission that wrote the state’s math standards in 1997. A vociferous critic of the Common Core math standards, he was named by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to a state commission evaluating the Common Core in 2010.
What seems certain is that the new secretary will not exercise anywhere near the influence that former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did during his nearly eight years as head of the department during the Obama administration.
The new secretary’s role will be radically circumscribed by the Every Student Succeeds Act approved by Congress last fall. The law replaces the No Child Left Behind law of 2002, and devolves much more decision-making powers to the states.
In numerous places the new federal law explicitly limits the powers of the secretary, especially when it comes to telling states, or even exercising his or her influence, regarding what they can or cannot do in numerous areas, most notably in testing, curriculum and instruction.
Trump has also advocated returning more authority over education to the states and local districts and creating a $20 billion school choice program providing tuition vouchers for low-income students to attend the public, private or charter school of their choice.