The US Secretaries of Education

Written By David E. Kirkland

DeVos isn’t the only cabinet pick who will influence education

Many progressive educators are furious about the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. As many have pointed out throughout the course of her confirmation hearings, Ms. DeVos enters the U.S. Department of Education with less experience in public education than almost any other Secretary of Education to date. Not only has she not attended, worked in, or sent her own children to public schools, DeVos seems unaware of major federal education policies such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which signals writ large her indifference to issues of equity in education.

Many are concerned about what is perceived as an unreasonable lust to privatize American education, accompanied by a religious zeal to Christianize it. While detractors focus on DeVos’s extreme positions on education (from school vouchers to her family’s support of conversion therapy), we must also ask: Are we doing ourselves and American students a favor by focusing solely on her and omitting other presidential cabinet candidates from the national education debate?

As Secretary of Education, Ms. DeVos will have unrivaled influence over the direction of education in this country. But she won’t be alone.

Other key cabinet appointees and their departments will also play major roles in the education of American youth, particularly the education of vulnerable youth. Thus, from an advocacy standpoint, there is a fierce need to scrutinize these other candidates in relationship to education if we are to advance quality systems that better cling to the promise of educating all American youth.

Housing and Urban Development

Ben Carson, for example, if he is confirmed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, will be responsible for the maintenance or erosion of residential segregation, a social outcome of structural inequity that typically results in high concentrations of poverty and vulnerability in specific regions of our country in ways that over-determine who gets to succeed in school and who doesn’t. Mr. Carson is on the record citing that Section 8 housing, a federal program aimed at interrupting residential segregation by making housing affordable for low-income families, would be cut.

If programs such as Section 8 get reduced or eliminated, the impact on education could be immense. The evidence on the relationship between housing and education is conclusive: Schools featuring students from persistently vulnerable communities are at greater risks of being closed; students who live in such communities or with unstable or interrupted housing patterns do significantly less well than peers who live with more stable housing options; and integrated communities better serve vulnerable students.

Health and Human Services

Housing isn’t the only issue that deserves focus from the progressive educational community.

Linkages between health and education also deserve attention. When confirmed, Trumps nominee for the Security of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, will play a major role in determining how vulnerable youth access the care necessary to persist from cradle to career and beyond. In recent years, there has been a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of healthcare on student attendance, school achievement, and graduate rates. Thus, access to quality healthcare has been and remains an important educational issue. However, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services will be charged with overseeing Trump’s pledge to abolish the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded coverage to hundreds of thousands of our nation’s young people.

While commenting on Price’s credentials for the health secretary position, Trump said, “[Price] is exceptionally qualified to shepherd our commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare and bring affordable and accessible healthcare to every American.” Absent from the President’s comments was any indication of Price’s qualifications to extend healthcare to countless thousands of American children languishing without access to affordable care.

Like healthcare, nutrition plays a central role in learning and human development. Studies have shown that the lack of a balanced diet can be a major contributing factor driving violent and antisocial behaviors in children and adolescents. When the body is starved of essential nutrients, the hormone balance of the brain is affected. Individuals outwardly express these imbalances as either cognition triggers or inhibitors, as suggested by evidence that the prevalence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and related syndromes occur more frequently in malnourished children. Thus, brain development is positively correlated with nutrition, and a lack of proper nutrition directly correlates with an individual’s inability to concentrate, improve their learning capacity, and exercise self-control.

Agriculture

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be responsible for guiding national conversations and commitments to healthy living and nutrition, supporting initiatives such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as the food stamp program, and the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions providing relief to millions of American low-income children. While Republicans have fought for decades to roll back funding for such essential nutritional programs, Sonny Perdue, the President’s pick to head the U.S. Department Agriculture, will be tested on his ability to leverage funding adequate enough to support the nutritional needs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

Justice

The Department of Justice also plays a key role in fostering conditions that are safe for learning without unjustly profiling or labeling students, particularly vulnerable ones. By some estimates, the Department of Justice directly impacts the lives and education of approximately 2 million school aged youth locked into the criminal justice system. A significant number of these young people face barriers to education, and still a significant number of vulnerable youth outside the system remain at risk of being pulled into it simply because they lack access to a basic and sound education.

Evidence from the U.S. Department of Education suggests that crime processing systems influence mass removals of vulnerable youth, particularly Black and Latino youth, from schools, where preventative and restorative programs could have offered real opportunities that help such students persist to graduation and beyond.

Attorney General

Jeff Sessions, Trumps nominee for U.S. Attorney General, was denied appointment as a federal judge in 1986 for a slew of racist comments, including calling the work of the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.” Given his track record and inflammatory rhetoric condemning efforts to expand opportunities to vulnerable people, Sessions is unlikely curate a justice department aimed at extending the additional supports and necessary protections some students need to succeed.

Undeniably, we in education must critically examine all of Trump’s cabinet picks—from Secretary of Labor to Secretary of Energy, from Secretary of Transportation to Secretary of the Interior—and ask, how might these picks influence education in our country.

Education is such a vast and intricate human entity. Hence, our understanding of it must begin to defy boxes and single and seemingly autonomous spaces such as the U.S. Department of Education because the education of American youth, and particularly our nation’s most vulnerable youth, is textured across mutually informing domains that relate to realities that exist beyond the reach of a particular federal agency.

At its most effective, education in our country will require a broad and bold focus. It will require attention from a variety of federal agencies that exist beyond one cabinet pick. In a sense, we have many secretaries of education. Each merits our critique. Each will need to be held accountable to standards of equity and justice. And from the sounds of the past few week’s confirmation hearings, those of us who see ourselves as progressive educators have our work cut out for us.

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David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.