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Is Trump Listening to the Wrong People on Education?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

*This piece was co-authored by Jane Robbins

President-elect Trump’s vetting process for cabinet positions indicates that only those who will carry out Trump’s agenda are being considered-- no exceptions, no compromises. Except one.

The short list of possible appointees for Secretary of Education suggests that the Trump transition team is not giving the U.S. Department of Education (USED) the same careful consideration as other departments. Is USED one swamp that won’t be drained?

After Trump’s campaign-long string of promises to “restore local control” and “end Common Core,” the transition team may be ignoring the concerns of the most populist movement American politics has seen since Reagan: the parents and teachers fighting Common Core.  As the list of Secretary candidates suggests, the only litmus test seems to be strong support of school choice. Support of Common Core and expansive federal education programs is apparently not viewed as problematic.

The transition team appears to be as ignorant as the Beltway political class always has been about what drives the anti-Common Core movement. Parents and teachers are counting on the next Administration to end USED’s myriad of grants, programs, and regulations that require alignment of curriculum and assessments to Common Core (and no, despite propaganda to the contrary, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will not accomplish that goal). But more school choice won’t address these problems. To the contrary -- inartfully drawn school-choice programs can eliminate real choice by sucking all schools, including private schools and charters, into the Common Core maw.    

Many members of the anti-Common Core movement aren’t opposed to school choice. But they are very opposed to the federal government’s dictating that policy to the states.  And they want any Education Secretary to understand how Common Core and other federal programs will negate the benefits of choice – a person such as Bill Evers, Larry Arnn, or Sandra Stotsky.  The grassroots understand as Milton Friedman did that the free-market principles necessary for competition among education providers can’t operate when the market is controlled and manipulated by a one-size-fits-all curriculum and tests mandated from Washington, D.C.

Surely Trump understands how this fundamental tenet of free-market economics affects school choice. So why is his transition team advocating for people who don’t?

Buzzfeed reports that the two frontrunners for the position are billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos and former DC Superintendent and Students First founder Michelle Rhee. If this is true, both of these choices are mystifying. DeVos’s foundation has poured millions into the school-choice movement, but her avid support of Common Core (which includes funding the campaigns of pro-Common Core challengers to conservative state officials) should disqualify her out of hand. As for Rhee, she supported Common Core so strongly that she took to the hustings to beg states to retain it.

Other puzzling candidates are those associated with Mr. Common Core, Jeb Bush (in fact, DeVos has served on his foundation’s board of directors). Among these “experts” from Jebworld are alumni of Bush’s Chiefs for Change (Gerard Robinson and Tony Bennett) and former members of Bush’s gubernatorial education team (Hanna Skandera). All of these candidates predictably support progressive education in general and Common Core in particular. Indeed, Bennett was booted out of his position as Indiana State School Superintendent for that very reason. Why would Trump even consider someone coming out of the environment on which he heaped such scorn during the campaign?

Then there are the current or former governors whose names have popped up as candidates for Secretary. Mitch Daniels? The former Indiana governor, now president of Purdue University, was a strong defender of Common Core when he was in office. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been less public about his support, but parents and other education activists from that state report that he has worked behind the scenes to stifle attempts to replace the wretched national standards with something better.

Secretary of Education is also one of the only cabinet positions for which the transition team is considering Democrats. Other than Rhee, Democrats whose names have been floated include Kevin Chavous, the founder of Democrats for Education Reform, and pro-Common Core charter operator Eva Moskowitz. We aren’t seeing that kind of compromise for Secretary of State or Chief of Staff, which leaves conservatives wondering if Education Secretary is the horse the transition team is willing to trade to look bipartisan.

Maybe all these names are just rumors, or the products of late-night brainstorming that were never intended to be taken seriously. But conservatives in the anti-Common Core movement are beginning to fear that the transition team’s agenda has replaced Trump’s, and that the grassroots activists will once again be sold out to the education establishment.

Erin Tuttle is a researcher for American Principle Project and Co-founder of Hoosiers Against Common Core

Jane Robbins is a senior fellow at American Principles Project

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