Opening Statement from Secretary of Education-Designate Jenn Binis

When I was but a wee educator, I belonged to a group that can best be described as a teacher think tank. We collaborated, gave each other feedback, planned, and designed together. It was fantastic. While preparing my induction portfolio, I made the decision to write a letter to the reader as if I were writing to my current self from the future. Despite spending hours looking for the evidence to support my claim, you’ll have to take my word that I signed that letter from my future self as Jennifer B., United States Secretary of Education.

It’s true, sports fans. I used to tell people that I was going to be Secretary of Education. It feels like an entire world ago but Senator Clinton had just been sworn in and her being president was still just an interesting speculation. (Take a moment of silence if you need it. I’m going to take a few.)

I’ve had a variety of reactions to Betsy DeVos’ nomination for the job I once wanted. It’s ranged from frustration that the first thing she wants people to know is that she’s a grandmother and mild amusement at how many are working to assure the field that her lack of experience in education isn’t that big of a deal. She’s the ultimate outsider to this profession and system I love with a passion. She’s a person of deep faith who seemingly wants to change the world according to that faith. As an agnostic who supports secular public education, that terrifies me. She’s agreed to work for Trump. I suspect she thinks her wealth protects her from having to work for a boss who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women or joked about sleeping with his daughter. As a woman, that decision saddens me.

So while I’m all aboard Train Dump DeVos, I can’t shake the idea of who it should be instead. What qualified, talented educator would I ask to take the job instead? Would a man be better because he [likely] wouldn’t be subjected to sexual harassment? But he might be in an environment where he’d be expected to join in “locker room talk.” And what if he’s gay? Would it be fair to ask a man to work for a Vice President who thinks he’s merely in need of conversion therapy? That would be – in my favorite phrase of late – a hard ask.

I don’t know. I don’t know who’d I ask instead. I got nothing. But, inspired by a tweet from Jon Becker, I decided to write my opening statement as if I’d gotten my dream job as Secretary of Education. I’m not well-versed in higher ed issues and really have no idea – at all – how the department actually works so I probably borked some parts. (Duncan’s opening statement in 2008 was 2400 words. DeVos’ tonight is about 1200. I kept mine somewhere in the middle.)

Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, Senators, thank you for all for the conversations we had leading up to today and my thanks for your diligence in vetting my record and finances to ensure I will fulfill my responsibilities fairly and maintain a focus on what is in the best interest of America’s 55 million school-aged children, 16 million college students, and the 23 million who will be enrolling in school within the next five years.

I suspect many of you can appreciate what a difficult decision this was for me as a woman and the daughter of gay parents. I do not support most of President-Elect Trump’s policies and proposals. He is aware that I will be taking no action to roll back protections for the most vulnerable children in our schools, including our DACA DREAMers and LGBTQ students. When we spoke about this position, I told him that I would be the dissenting voice in his cabinet and that he can count on me to speak up when I think he gets something about education wrong. Simply put, if he was unwilling to accept that condition, he should not nominate me. I’m here today so you know how that conversation ended. Despite our differences, President-Elect Trump and I do have one thing in common – a desire to bring radical change to the status quo.

Our public education system, unlike the country itself, does not have an anniversary. There is no date on the historical calendar we can point to and say, “on this day, American public education was born.” Instead, like so many things, it evolved in fits and starts. A system shaped by those designing it, it has passed from generation to generation with multiple goals but one overarching vision: provide American’s children with the knowledge they need to be successful citizens and adults.

The challenge we face is that the definition of “America’s children” has been informed by the adults constructing the system, schoolhouse by schoolhouse, classroom by classroom. Public education is an amazing, powerful, inspiring idea. It is also deeply flawed. For entirely too many generations, the definition of “American’s children” has been centered on the needs of White children and their parents. This is the status quo that needs to be disrupted.

There’s a comic that you will frequently see in you’ve made the rounds in education. I remember seeing it first when I was a young student teacher, trying to figure out how to support students with special needs without removing their agency, in the faculty room where I had my first classroom, and then again on a professor’s door when working on my PhD in Special Education. It shows a group of students waiting to get into their school on a snowy day, shivering in the cold while an adult shovels the steps in front of the door. A student waiting in a wheelchair points to a ramp leading up to the door and says, “you know, if you cleared that first, we could all get in.”

For too many generations, we’ve been focused on clearing the steps. On making small, incremental changes with our eye helping one particular group at a time, our backs turned on other groups. For a while after Brown v. Board of Ed, we turned our eye towards the needs of students of color. Since, then though, we lost sight of what matters. Our schools today are as segregated, and in some cases, more so than they were in the 60’s. And as a result, the brilliant students and talented educators in schools with large populations of students of color are working with fewer resources than schools with large populations of White students. I agreed to work with President Trump because he declared he wants to make America great. I believe we can accomplish that at the Department of Education by radically re-thinking a system that has perpetuated institutional racism and sexism for generations.

First, this means looking at funding equity. America will be great when every child spends their day inside a well-maintained, fully-resourced building where they feel safe, engaged, and challenged. I believe we can accomplish this by looking at how we fund suburban, urban, and rural districts and providing state lawmakers with the information they need to make informed budgeting decisions. Rather then splintering the core of what public education stands for through vouchers, we can encourage states to allow cross-district enrollment, re-frame how we think about the neighborhood school, and focus on equitable funding. School district boundaries can be permeable. Zoning lines can be crossed.

I know there have been some concerns around federal overreach. One of the other reasons I agreed to accept this nomination was to protect the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. In that office, all 55 million children are our responsibility, not a select few. More importantly, rights are not a zero sum game. Parents of all backgrounds should know that under my leadership, we will work to protect the civil rights of all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, gender identity, religion, or geography. At the same time, I will work with state leaders to help parents see that when other people’s children do better, so will their’s. Through our actions and words, the Education Department will send the message that public education is about all of us. 

The Education Department has a 10,000 foot perspective on education which provides a vantage point that states don’t have. I will instruct my staff to work closely with data collection, and privacy, experts to ensure we are regularly using demographic, learning, and financial data to stay informed of trends and patterns at the state and local level. Our office will analyze and advise so that those 1000 or 100 feet from the students can make the most informed decisions possible. I will not insult educators, families, or yourselves by suggesting anything related to education is simple. It’s a complex system for many reasons, primarily because parents are trusting the great loves of their lives to the adults within it. We owe parents and taxpayers accountability. We’ve gotten accountability wrong in the past but we will ask teachers to help us learn from our mistakes and identify which systems worked well and which ones didn’t.

When we see little or no movement towards closing access and achievement gaps, we will provide states and districts with the information they need to close those gaps based on what’s working in communities across the country. One of teachers’ many rules of thumb is to beg, borrow, and steal resources from those with more experience. I will do everything within the power of the department to ensure that there is never an excuse for a lack of action and work with state and local governments where there appears to be a lack of will. This means supporting dissemination of knowledge through on-line research warehouses and constant communication between the department and all state chiefs to ensure those standing beside the students have what they need to do their jobs.

Second, this means re-thinking our current mental models around K-12 education. Although there is no set start date for public education in general, a number of decisions made in 1893 at the National Educational Association’s Committee of Ten set in stone how we think about school as something that begins at age 5. Students change grades every year until they age out at 17 or 18 and move into a second system of higher education.

While most of us sitting in this room found great success with that model, it doesn’t work for all. It’s resulted in 11 year old 3rd graders held back by a single test, too many gifted children going un-served, or some students with disabilities stuck in a gray space between their chronological and cognitive age. There are districts in this country having great success with multi-age schools that are too busy doing what matters to spread what works. That will be one of my responsibilities.

I have no plans to pursue any changes to the finalized regulations to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), with one exception. I will propose, with hopefully Congress’ support, that we put forth changes to the regulation language around grade levels in order to remove barriers for communities that wish to move to learner-centered, competency-based learning structures, shifting away from the grade-levels established more than a century ago. I will continue to support states in their efforts to create public charter schools that seek to fulfill a need the public school cannot. However. Education is not a business and should not be treated as such. Any states looking to enable revenue generating charter management companies will be expected to provide detailed explanations on how they will hold them accountable to ensure consistent quality education that is par with the vision I’ve set out for public education.

This will also mean thinking differently about college and degree certifications. The harm caused by for-profit universities should serve as a lesson as we have those conversations. I will lean heavily on experts in the field to advise me how to guide our way forward to ensure that crushing debt is not a given for recent grads and that adults looking to change careers or peruse other interests, have the supports they need.

Finally, America will be great when our schools fully reflect the diversity of our population and collective experiences. It should not be acceptable for white children go their entire lives without having a teacher of color. Black parents should be able to assume their children will routinely see and learn from Black educators and peers. Indigenous and Native parents shouldn’t have to worry that their children will encounter curriculum that treats them as relics from American history. Discussion of a Muslim registry shouldn’t be the first time our citizenry is learning about the Asian internment camps of World War II. Curriculum belongs in teachers’ hands. However, there are 3.4 million teachers. It is my goal that educators come to see the Department of Education as trusted partner and advocate for quality curriculum and pedagogy. I’ll propose expanding the What Works Clearinghouse so it includes guidance on creating inclusive, anti-racist learning environments. We will regularly celebrate what is working at the local level, using measures of success that go beyond test scores.

Changing a system as large as public education takes time and an open and explicit commitment to challenging the status quo. Part of this means making  teaching a profession that appeals to all. I will continue to support programs started under Secretary Duncan and King that are using research-based strategies to recruit, train, and support teachers of color, especially men of color. Likewise, I will look carefully at the previous administration’s actions around campus sexual assault and use colleges’ feedback as well asking students who have been sexually assaulted to provide their input in order to make changes as needed.

There are numerous challenges facing this country and this administration. President-Elect Trump has proposed some truly radical changes to how government operates and while each department will have it’s part to play, it’s my belief that educators at each level – from the Education Department to local school boards – bear the greatest responsibility. We are the ones shepherding the next generation into the future and I know we all take that responsibility seriously. Thank you for considering my nomination and I am happy to answer any questions you have.

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