By Karen Nussle, Executive Director, CL4E
As a conservative that works in the education policy arena, I am hopeful that President-elect Trump is true to his “outsider” brand when picking a cabinet secretary for the Department of Education. Trump voters could not have been clearer in communicating their expectations: give us something new and different. Not the same old tired political class that has dominated Washington and our government for decades. Shake it up. Do the unexpected. Give some new, smart people a chance to direct the affairs of the country. So I’m hoping in this cabinet pick, we see some new, exciting local stars and not tired, Washington based think tankers or politicians.
To break the recent trend, the Trump transition needs to look first to state leaders who are on the front lines of actually doing the hard work of transforming education – not just talking or writing about it. New, in some instances young, leaders who have a track record of showing how to advance conservative education policy.
Who would I recommend? Here are some candidates that I think make the grade.
Lisa Graham Keegan – former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Keegan is a true conservative — she was vice-Chair of the Republican platform committee in 2008 and has served numerous prominent republican leaders from Governor Jan Brewer to former Speaker Newt Gingrich. But most recently Keegan has been a tireless advocate for the expansion of charter schools in Arizona (now one of the top 10 states in the nation for charters), and as current Executive Director of “A for Arizona” she is breaking ground in showing that low income public schools can be high achievers. She is on the front lines of some of the most exciting progress happing in K-12 education and she has the skills to help other states model these reforms while getting the federal government out of the way. Plus anyone who has raised 5 children can certainly handle Congress.
Dr. Carlos Campo – prominent Hispanic evangelical leader and current President of Ashland University, Campo would be an excellent choice to head DoE. The education focus in the near future will be on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, so someone with experience in higher education, rather than K-12, would be a smart choice. Campo would have instant credibility with conservatives (he served as President of Regent University) and is a passionate advocate for Hispanic children, who will soon become a majority in America’s public school population. He has an impressive track record as an actual classroom educator and would be a refreshing outsider to occupy America’s top education job.
Secretary Hanna Skandera – as current Secretary of Education in New Mexico, Skandera has made a name for herself as a bold leader who is not afraid to take on the education establishment. Skandera led the state’s transition from the one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind to a New Mexico-based framework for supporting students and schools. She has expanded choices for parents and students by expanding access to charter schools, and most importantly, she slashed the Public Education Department’s budget by 30% while directing more dollars to students and teachers in the classroom. Skandera’s local education experience spans 4 states (NM, TX, CA and FL, where she was deputy commissioner) and in all of those places she served Republican chief executives. She is a state leader that knows how to enact conservative education policy and can help other states do the same while keeping the federal Education Department’s footprint to a minimum.
State Legislative Leaders – we have several shinning stars among our members in Conservative Leaders for Education. All of them would make excellent choices as they all have considerable experience in education policy and several are actual educators (check them out here). For example, Senator Owen Hill. Senator Hill is Chairman of the Colorado Senate Education Committee, is an Air Force veteran and homeschooling father of four young children. What a refreshing choice he would make! Hill is known as a limited government conservative who is working to expand parental choices in education. In his own words, “The current system of concentrated power at the federal government needs to be transformed into a model where local government in conjunction with personal liberty is the priority. This will help us create thousands of local community laboratories experimenting with the best mix of limited government, personal responsibility, and neighborly generosity that help us live flourishing lives in the modern world. This is what our Founders meant when they wrote of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” His number one priority has been to expand the number of Colorado kids that get to choose their school, and he has been quite successful at that, as currently one in seven Colorado school children has chosen the school they attend.
Dr. Tony Zeiss – Zeiss is the outgoing president of Central Piedmont Community College, one of the largest community colleges in North Carolina, serving approximately 70,000 students per year. During his tenure, the college grew from one campus to six and has become recognized as a national leader in Workforce Development. A leader from the higher education community would be timely, given Congress’ interest in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, and someone familiar with the Community College system would be a bonus. Zeiss clearly has experience with big systems and could bring some much needed conservative leadership to the Department.
Betsy DeVos – hailing from Michigan, a state that helped give Trump the Presidency, DeVos is a known conservative leader and a ferocious education reformer. She has served as Chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party and as the Republican National Committee woman for the state. Through her family foundation she has significantly helped to advance efforts around school choice and charter schools in many states around the country. DeVos is Chair of the American Federation for Children (AFC), which describes itself as “a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.” She has said her overall goal is that “all parents, regardless of their zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”
Secretary Bill Bennett – I would be remiss if I did not include Conservative Leaders for Education’s own chairman, former Secretary Bill Bennett. The case for Bennett is strong. As Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary, Bennett is the only person on the planet who can claim to have actually reduced the size of the Federal Department of Education. He is a conservative’s conservative, award winning academic, a two-time former cabinet secretary, best-selling author and one of the best darn communicators in the Republican party (he should have run for President). He would bring the ultimate in conservative thinking to significantly reducing the size and scope of the Department of Education while leading the way for parent choice and quality content in schools – he’s done it before.