November 13, 2020
“I know education is a place we can come together. When I think about the future I think about broadband access, state and local governments’ financial strain, education loss for early learners and pre-k students.”
– The Honorable Margaret Spellings, United States Secretary of Education (2005-2009)
For the past eight months, the United States has endured a series of disruptive events that are likely to have significant impact on our nation’s trajectory. Affected by a pandemic, economic recession, and ongoing racial tensions, Americans are witnessing events that could not have been predicted a year ago, all of which have had a profound impact on students and their families. In the face of these challenges, Americans went to the polls in record numbers and elected Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. As the Biden-Harris Administration prepares for its transition into office, many questions remain as to how its vision for education may differ from that of the Trump Administration. To gather a better understanding of how the federal approach to public education may shift in the immediate- and long-term, The Hunt Institute, in concert with with School Superintendents Association, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and National School Boards Association, hosted a conversation with former secretaries of Education The Honorable Margaret Spellings (2005-09), The Honorable Arne Duncan (2009-15), New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza, and Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. The panelists discussed the opportunities and challenges in education for the Biden Administration, and how the federal government, state governments, and local school districts can align to most effectively enact meaningful change for students and their families. .
“This is an opportunity for an educational new deal. This could look like dismantling the gaps students face in our schools, investing in public schools as an investment in the future, and leveraging the talent of students and teachers.”
– Richard A. Carranza, Chancellor, New York City Department of Education
Opening the conversation was Margaret Spellings, who served as the Secretary of Education under the George W. Bush Administration. Spellings reflected on her first days in the position, discussing the need to get to work quick following a short transition period following the 2000 Presidential Election. Soon after that transition, the Bush Administration implemented the No Child Left Behind Act, and Spellings noted how this legislation garnered bipartisan support, stressing the idea that education is a place where all can come together. Spellings went on to emphasize the need for dramatic broadband expansion, fiscal relief for state and local governments, and exploring the use of a national tutoring intervention to combat learning loss in the coming months.
Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education under the first seven years of the Obama Administration, spoke about the need to stitch the country back together, expressing concern about the damages that have and could continue to be caused by increasingly significant political divisiveness. Duncan, when expressing this concern, noted that education is a first step in healing the nation from the damages incurred.
Next, Chancellor Richard Carranza discussed his vision for the future of public education. Carranza, who leads the New York City Department of Education, spoke about the three pandemics inflicting pain on the nation: a public health pandemic, an economic pandemic, and racial reckoning. Carranza spoke about the horrific experiences endured in New York City in the early days of the pandemic, as well as noting how school and district budgets have been decimated as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, Carranza spoke about the need to develop and implement a New Deal for education post-pandemic, an approach which would eliminate systems and structures responsible for oppression, develop an infrastructure allowing students to connect from anywhere, and develop a federal policy grounded in the needs of the most vulnerable students.
Wrapping up opening remarks was Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who laid out several critical points regarding what he has seen and what needs to happen. Carvalho, who leads Miami-Dade Public Schools, first noted the need to recognize that before the pandemic and accompanying challenges millions of children were already in crisis. Second, Carvalho stressed the need to ensure that no child’s future should be determined by their zip code, acknowledging the sad truth that zip code continues to determine the futures of millions in the United States. Finally, Carvalho advocated for the need to close opportunity gaps that begin at birth, which requires a significant investment in early childhood education.
“I see the federal government as being effectively impactful in any community to the extent it is science driven, that it prioritizes people not politics, and that it recommends the appropriate guidelines on school reopening and closings.”
– Alberto M. Carvalho, District Superintendent, Miami-Dade Public Schools
Following opening remarks, the panelists responded to several questions which touched on topics ranging from early childhood to who the next U.S. Secretary of Education should be. The first point of discussion pertained to how the Biden Administration’s approach to education would differ from that of the current administration, with a particular focus on the Office of Civil Rights. Spellings highlighted the historical significance of this office, and its origin as part of President Johnson’s Great Society. Spellings also hopes that there is serious bipartisanship in education policy under the new Administration given the need to respond quick to urgent issues on the ground. Duncan discussed his disappointment in the current Administration’s departure from Obama era civil rights guidance, stating the need to reinstate the civil rights protections outlined under the Obama Administration. Additionally, Duncan expressed particular interest in who will lead the Office of Civil Rights under the Biden Administration.
Another theme in this portion of the conversation is what the federal role should be in supporting school districts through the pandemic. Superintendent Carvalho stressed the need for the federal government to provide sound epidemiological guidance, not play politics, and work closely with school districts in the reopening process. Additionally, Carvalho noted the federal government must focus on community-based health and utilize experts who can share reliable, evidence-based best practices. Chancellor Carranza, when addressing this question, stated that district superintendents should not have to take stances against their governors and the federal government, but rather work in concert with them to address the issues brought by the current crises.
Questions from the audience steered the conversation toward early childhood education and standards, assessment, and accountability. Chancellor Carranza discussed the imperative to invest in Pre-K, noting the long-term positive academic and behavioral outcomes associated with high-quality child care and early childhood education. Carranza illustrated the importance of educational investment by discussing the taxpayer benefit, noting that while educating a child in New York City costs $20,000 per year, incarcerating a child in New York City costs an astounding $275,000 per year. Children are not the only winners from strong educational investment, as taxpayers benefit, too.
In terms of the future of accountability, there was considerable consensus on the idea that accountability going forward must not only relate to assessments. Secretary Duncan charged policymakers and stakeholders with thinking about who is accountable for students being fed, providing mental health services, increasing persistence and completion rates, and addressing systemic racism. Superintendent Carvalho built on Duncan’s points, stating that accountability in education must go beyond performance accountability. Finally, Secretary Spellings stated her optimism in how close the United States is to getting assessments right, noting that assessments must be nimble, ongoing, real-time, and carry the weight of accountability with them.
“There are urgent critical things that schools can be a catalyst for but that can engage the broader community. We can do real hard work together and move forward with one another as a way to heal division.”
– Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education (2009-2015)
The discussion closed with each panelist being asked about experiences and qualities the next U.S. Secretary of Education should have. Superintendent Carvalho stated that this individual must have a good understanding of where America has been, where it is now, and where it could go in the future. Additionally, this individual must be an educator, embrace an increasingly diverse student body, be data-driven, and display strong leadership skills. Chancellor Carranza is looking for four things in the next U.S. Secretary of Education: someone that will dismantle the Jeffersonian model of education, have classroom experience, possess a trauma-informed perspective, and be committed to serving all students. Secretary Duncan’s vision is that it will be someone who can heal and unify, and Secretary Spellings is looking for someone who can persuade the President to advocate for change.
In a turbulent time, this conversation gave panelists the space to discuss what they see as some of the most pressing issues in education and public discourse; the panelists also expressed optimism about the role public education can play in developing, maintaining, and growing a civically-engaged democratic society. There was agreement about the role public education can also play in stitching the wounds in the United States, especially by serving as a rallying point for policymakers and stakeholders, as focusing on the well-being of kids should be an absolute priority for all in this country.