Expert Outlines Litmus Test for Conservative Education Secretary

November 22, 2016

Education policy expert Frederick Hess on Monday published a list of 10 criteria that conservatives could use to select a reform-minded and principled secretary of education.

Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in National Review that the next secretary of education cannot just be a reformer, because "the 'reform' camp is rife with politically correct, big-government liberals who happen to like charter schooling." The next secretary, he said, should be prepared to "roll back Obama-era overreach" in addition to reforming schools.

President-elect Donald Trump has not outlined many specifics about his education policy agenda. Trump's transition website states that he will expand school choice "through charters, vouchers, and teacher-driven learning models," encourage affordable college access "through technology enriched delivery models," and roll back federal regulations that "inhibit innovation."

Hess outlined a 10-part litmus test to determine if candidates for secretary of education were up to the task of fighting the education establishment and rolling back Obama administration mandates.

1.  A consistent record of opposing federal efforts to promote the Common Core or tell states how they ought to evaluate teachers.

Common Core is a set of standards that show what students should know in mathematics and English at the K-12 level. Common Core has been pushed by the Obama administration, which all but required states to adopt the standards in order to receive federal funds in the Race to the Top program.

Conservative scholars have criticized Common Core as an attempt to make education a federal, rather than local, responsibility. Trump has called Common Core a "total disaster."

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.

The Obama administration has used the Office of Civil Rights to enforce progressive social policies in schools. It reinterpreted a federal gender discrimination law from 1972 to increase the office's power. The office used its new mandate, plus threats of federal investigation, to issue controversial regulations about transgender bathroom access and campus tribunals for students accused of sexual assault.

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.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was passed in December 2015 as a replacement to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. It retained the NCLB's requirement that states test K-12 students once per year, but restricted the federal government's ability to rate schools and order them to make changes. According to Hess, "the law’s clear prohibitions on federal involvement in state standards, accountability systems, or testing still depend on faithful execution" by the Department of Education.

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.

While most education spending occurs at the state and local level, federal education spending has increased by 36 percent since 2002, from $49.9 billion in fiscal 2002 to $68.3 billion in fiscal 2016. The biggest federal education expense is the Pell Grant program, which provides tuition assistance to students with a demonstrated financial need. President Obama has proposed major federal education initiatives, such as a plan to pay for two years of tuition at community colleges. His budget for fiscal 2017 proposes increasing federal education funding to $69.4 billion.

Trump has stated he will spend $20 billion on school choice by reallocating existing education funds.

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.

Trump's shortlist for secretary of education has narrowed to two candidates, according to BuzzFeed. The two candidates are Betsy DeVos, a longtime education activist who chairs the American Federation for Children (AFC) and the Alliance for School Choice, and Michelle Rhee, the former Democratic chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system.

Rhee has drawn sharp criticism from conservatives, who have pointed out that she is a supporter of Common Core.