Editorial: Education Needed at the Top

Friday, January 20, 2017

Experience isn’t everything, but it’s curious that the nominees for U.S. secretary of education and New Hampshire commissioner of education have so little of it. Apparently, in the minds of their Republican supporters, ideology will fill the gaps.

On the national level, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire with a history of large political donations, has faced skeptical questioning from senators who suggest she is out of touch with the realities and complexities of the department she would lead. Critics say she did not attend public schools and neither did her children. That’s no disqualifier, of course, but Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont wondered how she came to be the nominee: “Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?” DeVos said she thought it was possible: “I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”

DeVos, who according to The Washington Post once called the public education system a “dead end,’’ has indeed been working hard — to support privatization of education, including through for-profit charter schools.

New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, whose son has cerebral palsy, expressed concern that DeVos didn’t sufficiently understand federal laws regarding services for disabled students. DeVos said she would be “sensitive to the needs of special needs students,’’ but Hassan told her that wasn’t enough — she needs to know the intricacies of the rules and the demands of the law.

In New Hampshire, Frank Edulblut, Gov. Chris Sununu’s choice to run the $1.3 billion state Education Department, will face on-the-job training. He and his wife homeschooled their seven children, something he proudly touted in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Partly based on that experience, Edublut developed sweeping ideas for remaking public education. He wants to allow towns to spend taxpayer dollars on non-public schools, opposes the Common Core standards, and rejects federal guidance on transgender bathroom choice. He supported Croydon School Board members who resisted state orders to stop using tax dollars to pay private school tuition.

Edulblut has been successful in business — he created and sold a consulting company for what he once called “a boatload of money.” He served on his town’s Water Commission in Wilton, but not the School Board, unfortunately. Rather, he has said his business success informs his views on education. There is nothing like a day at the office to make one understand what’s happening at school.

Both Edulblut and DeVos are would-be agents of change in realms we suspect they only partly understand — and that makes them unworthy nominees. But if they are confirmed, their first priority should be to visit schools and talk to educators. If they saw some of the successes that are happening in public schools, they might not be so focused on perceived failures. We can only hope they are open to educating themselves.