The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Shavar Jeffries: Why Democratic activists should not go to work for Trump as Education Secretary

President-elect Donald Trump met with potential Cabinet picks last weekend at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Shavar Jeffries is the president of Democrats for Education Reform. The organization was an early supporter of President Obama’s and has lobbied for the expansion of charter schools, as well as for efforts to gauge the success of teachers and schools based on the performance of their students on standardized tests. Jeffries’s commentary comes in response to news reports that Trump is considering several Democrats, including former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and former D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, to head the U.S. Education Department. — Emma Brown

By Shavar Jeffries

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. But, in the case of President-elect Trump, I cannot in good faith support any Democrat who is willing to accept an appointment to serve as Secretary of Education in this new administration. Based on the positions he has taken, President-elect Trump’s administration will undoubtedly etch away at the progress we’ve made towards creating a more equitable public education system under President Obama – and irreparably damage our children’s futures.

Education reform principles are progressive and capital-D Democratic by nature. Themes of raising standards and strengthening accountability, expanding public-school choice, furthering innovations in teacher preparation and support, and advancing resource equity all find their roots in a progressive commitment to ensuring that all children, particularly our most vulnerable, have access to an education system that empowers them to fulfill their limitless potential.

Public charter schools, for example, were first proposed by hard-nosed progressives, including American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker, and their growth accelerated through the support of liberal lions ranging from Senator Paul Wellstone to Governor Howard Dean to Congressman George Miller to President Obama. Likewise, curricular standards aligned with college and career-readiness goals, and enhanced accountability to ensure schools fulfill their obligation to prepare students to meet the needs of the 21st century global economy, also find their roots in the imperatives of civil-rights and child advocates.

This progressive commitment to equitable education policy also goes hand-in-hand with intersectional issues that affect our kids. While effective school policies are vitally important, so too are the environmental conditions affecting children and families. In our country there are children who are homeless, children without access to food or healthcare, children whose parents cannot find steady work, children whose fathers are locked up for years on low-level drug offenses.

The lives of our most vulnerable kids often present debilitating combinations of these risk factors, consigning them too often to muted lives in which the flame of genius flickering inside of them is snuffed out prematurely. For these reasons, progressives seek education reform that not only marries innovation and choice with resources and accountability, but also addresses environmental conditions that undermine the capacity of our children to reach their potential.

Through this lens, and rooted in our progressive roots, we urge no progressive or Democrat to accept an appointment to serve in the Trump Administration as Secretary of Education.

Trump’s rhetoric and stated policies plainly contradict the fundamentals of what progressives have sought for children for decades. His $20 billion proposal to expand school choice could end up gutting Title I, the federal commitment to ensuring low-income children have at least a basic set of resources to finance their education. He proposes, if not to eliminate the Department of Education, to eliminate any meaningful federal role in ensuring states prepare their children for college and careers, undercutting Title I’s primary purpose of ensuring that states and districts take appropriate steps to educate children effectively, and to intervene when they do not.

Trump proposes to dismantle indispensable safety-net services that aim to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty on children and families. He proposes a set of tax cuts that are multiples larger than those implemented under President George W. Bush — at a time when our national deficit exceeds $20 trillion — squeezing out funding for vital social services desperately needed by our most vulnerable children and families. He proposes, without any specific replacement in sight, to eliminate healthcare for 20 million families, the overwhelming share comprising the same Title I families already under siege by his other proposals. He endorses stop-and-frisk programs for policing America’s cities — an approach that decades of social-science research show leads to the imprisonment of disproportionately poor African-American and Latino residents on low-level, non-violent offenses: the family disconnections associated with parental incarceration is uniquely damaging to a child’s ability to be educated effectively.

And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-specific stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods. He proposes to deport millions of Dreamers forcibly from their communities. He proposes to build a wall on our southern border to keep out Mexicans, whom he has lambasted as rapists and criminals. He proposes to ban Muslims from entering our country solely because of their religion — and for those espousing this simply as “campaign rhetoric,” he now has transition team members openly suggesting that Muslim Americans register with the federal government, a practice echoing some of the darkest chapters in human history.

Some have concluded that Trump’s stated support for increasing funding to the federal Charter School Program, an important priority for progressive reformers, ought to suggest reconsideration. High-quality public charter schools change lives throughout the country, and we applaud proposals to increase appropriations to that program. But as much as we enthusiastically support resources to grow and expand any high-performing public school, including public charters, that by itself in no way counterbalances the grave, generational challenge Trump’s retrograde policies and rhetoric present to America’s schoolchildren, particularly our most vulnerable low-income urban and rural children.

We wish that our President-elect represented the broad mainstream of leaders from both parties who have championed a vision of progressive education reform and a commitment to basic social policies that are currently working for kids and communities across the nation. But the stated policies and rhetoric of the President-elect run contrary to our most fundamental values. Until Trump expresses a willingness to educate the whole child and invest in the communities that nurture our children, no Democrat should accept appointment as Secretary of Education. In doing so, that person would become an instrument of an agenda that both contradicts progressive commitments to educational equity, and also threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.