Politics & Policy

Choosing the Right Trump Secretary of Education

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A ten-item litmus test to help find the best conservative pick

The Trump cabinet is slowly starting to take shape. Although this Beltway ritual is of much more interest to Washington insiders than to Americans at large, the stakes are high. As the old saw has it, “personnel is policy.” Given the president-elect’s disinterest in policy particulars, this especially applies to Trump.

The focus has been on key positions such as State, Treasury, and Defense, but it was from their perch in the once-sleepy Department of Education that Obama-administration officials handed down some of their most troubling decisions. It was here that Obama’s minions, wildly overreaching, did their best to shove the Common Core down the nation’s throat, told schools that they could no longer allow students to use locker rooms based on biology, pressed colleges to adopt lawless kangaroo courts in response to a nonexistent campus “rape epidemic,” fought to let federal bureaucrats dictate local school spending policies, and championed race-based quotas for school discipline.

The next administration will have the opportunity to either set things right or make permanent Obama’s unfortunate legacy. It matters immensely who leads Trump’s Department of Education. It’s not enough that the person support school choice or be a “reformer.” At least as important is that he or she stands ready to roll back Obama-era overreach, restore educational federalism, roll back regulatory creep, and fight the politically correct fever dreams of education’s liberal elite. Unfortunately, among the names floated for Secretary of Education, several have seemed better-suited to a third Obama term than to the task at hand.

Let’s hope that Trump gets this right. He has a talented team working on the education transition, and that can only help. But Trump is no conservative, so it’s foolish to rely on him choosing as if he were one. If Trump makes the wrong call, the stakes are too high for Republican senators to turn a blind eye. GOP senators need to ask the right questions and stand ready to reject a nominee who fails to fit the bill.  What should they be looking for?

They should apply a straightforward, ten-item litmus test. Trump’s nominee must have:

  1. A consistent record of opposing federal efforts to promote the Common Core or tell states how they ought to evaluate teachers.
  2. A clear grasp of how egregiously the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has overstepped its statutory authority, and an ability to forcefully articulate what the new administration needs to do about it.
  3. An iron-clad commitment to abide by the actual legislative language of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and to stop federal bureaucrats who want to venture beyond the law in order to micromanage states or school systems.
  4. A demonstrated willingness to call out the political bias endemic to higher education. This means that the nominee will have publicly denounced efforts to stymie speech, disinvite conservative speakers, and casually brand conservatives as racists and xenophobes.
  5. A willingness to enthusiastically champion all forms of school choice, and for all families. This means embracing not only charter schools, but also virtual schools, school vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts. The nominee should see these innovations not as boutique programs for low-income families but as alternatives that benefit our education system overall.
  6. A conviction that for-profit enterprise is a natural and healthy part of America’s diverse educational ecosystem. This means believing that for-profit colleges and charter schools, for instance, should be judged on their merits and should be free to compete on a level playing field. This would mark a sharp reversal from the Obama-era crusade to vilify for-profit education.
  7. A record of calling out the testing mania that was birthed by Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top. This doesn’t mean that the nominee need to be “anti-testing,” just that he or she will have shown an ability to challenge faddish convention when it has gone too far.
  8. A clear and uncompromising record of opposing big federal education programs and record of opposing calls for increased federal education spending.
  9. An unapologetic insistence that college affordability is not about giving students a free ride, but about entering a partnership with taxpayers — and that viable policy solutions must serve both students and taxpayers.
  10. A clear recognition on issues such as early childhood education and data privacy that we need to skeptically scrutinize the well-meaning plans of Beltway do-gooders.

This probably looks pretty commonsensical to most conservatives. That’s the point. In education, the “reform” camp is rife with politically correct, big-government liberals who happen to like charter schooling or dislike teacher unions. These liberal reformers certainly have some admirable traits, but none is a good choice for Secretary of Education. Conservatives should demand a principled pick, and the Senate shouldn’t confirm anyone who doesn’t meet that bill.

Frederick M. Hess — Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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