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Diane Ravitch: Biden’s Pick for Education Secretary Must Overturn DeVos’s Attack on Public Schools

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President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Connecticut public schools commissioner Miguel Cardona for secretary of education, tapping a third Latinx person to join his Cabinet. Cardona is a former teacher who represents a sharp break from outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who urged career employees at the Education Department earlier this month to “be the resistance” to the incoming administration. He is Puerto Rican and began his career as a fourth grade teacher, becoming the state’s top schools official just last August, the first Latinx person to hold the position. “He’s not Betsy DeVos, and every educator in America, or almost every educator, will be thrilled about that,” says Diane Ravitch, a writer and historian of education who served as assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. “He’s been in public schools throughout his career, and that’s a big plus for many people who’ve been watching the attacks on public education, on teachers, for the past four and more years.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look at President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Connecticut public schools commissioner Miguel Cardona as the next secretary of education, tapping a third Latinx person to join his Cabinet — the first time ever.

Cardona is a Puerto Rican, grew up in public housing, spoke Spanish only when he first entered public schools. He began his career in education as a fourth grade teacher, rose to be Connecticut’s youngest school principal at age 28, then assistant superintendent of a school district with just 9,000 students in his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut. He became the state’s top schools official just last August and its first Latinx person to hold the position.

During the pandemic, Cardona has advocated for the reopening of schools, though only about one-third of Connecticut’s public school students are currently able to attend in-person classes. He’s also pushed to use federal aid to buy personal protective equipment for teachers and classrooms. And his administration allocated federal funds to purchase laptops and internet access for students who remain at home.

If confirmed, Cardona will replace Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who urged career employees at the Education Department earlier this month to, quote, “be the resistance” when the Biden administration comes into power next month, according to a recording of her meeting obtained by Politico.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. She’s a historian of education, best-selling author. Her most recent book is Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. She blogs at DianeRavitch.net.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Diane Ravitch. We’re going to talk about DeVos’s record, but we want to start off by talking about the significance of what, for many, was a surprise pick to be the education secretary.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, yes, it was a surprise pick, because Dr. Cardona is not known outside of Connecticut. And in the early discussions about who might be selected as commissioner, his name was not mentioned.

The good thing is, first of all, he’s not Betsy DeVos, and every educator in America, or almost every educator, will be thrilled about that. But, secondly, he’s a public school person. He went to public schools. His children go to public schools. He’s been in public schools throughout his career. And that’s a big plus for many people who have been watching the attacks on public education and on teachers for the past four and more years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Diane Ravitch, I’m wondering — as you were saying, it was a surprise, the Miguel Cardona pick. Many, of course, progressives for years have been pushing for Democratic presidents to name Linda Darling-Hammond, the California educator, as secretary of education, but she was on the transition group that eventually, apparently, pushed for Cardona. And I believe — I believe Cardona may be — he’s not the first Latino to be named secretary of education. Back when you were in the White House administration, there was Lauro Cavazos, who was President H.W. Bush’s secretary of education. But I believe that Cardona may be the first Puerto Rican, person of Puerto Rican ancestry, ever to serve on a U.S. Cabinet, on a president’s Cabinet. So that is certainly a breakthrough in terms of Latino representation in federal government, but especially in light of the reality that so much of the public school system in the United States is increasingly Latino. Fifty-five percent of all the public school pupils in California today are Hispanic; 53% in Texas, of the entire state; 40% of New York’s public school population; and even North Carolina, 16% of the entire public school population of North Carolina is Latino. So, really, the problem of solving the education obstacles to Latino children in public schools are really at the heart of improving public education. So, in this sense, do you think that there might be a real potential for progress with Cardona running the Education Department?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, Dr. Cardona took his bachelor’s degree in bilingual and bicultural education, so he certainly knows the problems very well. He has worked on them in his role as the superintendent, then for the period of time that he’s been commissioner in Connecticut. So, you know, he has a lot of pluses in terms of his experience with the Latino and Hispanic population.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the whole issue of charter schools, you and I have talked often, and we agree on a lot of the errors in the drastic turn that the country has taken to charter schools. Do you get any sense of where Cardona stands on the issue of federal impetus or underwriting of the development of more charter schools?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, here’s the thing, is that I think that, in part, Cardona was chosen because he’s noncontroversial. In the end, as I understand it, the choice came down to between Dr. Cardona and Dr. Leslie Fenwick, who is the dean emeritus of Howard University. Dr. Fenwick is an outspoken critic of Teach for America, of charter schools and of, basically, the federal policy of the past 20 years. And I happen to agree — she is a progressive. I publicly supported her on my blog, because I think she would have upended federal policy. And I don’t think the Biden administration wanted to upset the so-called reformers by choosing someone who was so unspoken. Dr. Cardona, on the other hand, has been very low-profile. It’s hard to know if he’s for or against charters.

He has said, in Connecticut, that he wants the testing to go forward this spring. And I think progressives understand that the testing has gotten completely out of control and that the mandated — the annual mandated federal testing is a leftover from the George W. Bush No Child Left Behind era. So, for 20 years, we have been following the No Child Left Behind Texas miracle, which was a hoax. There was no Texas miracle. And yet the federal government, year after year, continues to require every child, from third grade to eighth grade, to take the same standardized test, or their own — in most cases, their state test or a test designed by Pearson or some other big manufacturer. Dr. Cardona thinks — from what I’ve seen of his tweets and public comments, he thinks that testing has been too much, which is certainly right, but he has said nothing about suspending it for this spring. Even Betsy DeVos suspended it last year, but she said she wouldn’t suspend it if she were in office this year, which, thank goodness, she’s not.

And I think that, on day one, the Biden administration should announce that there will be no mandated testing this spring, because the inequality of access to education over this past several months has been dramatic. And I can save the country hundreds of millions of dollars by telling you what the results will be. I already know what the results will be: The rich kids will have high scores, and the poor kids will have low scores. And the kids who have the least access through technology or in-person learning will have the lowest scores. So, there, I just saved hundreds of millions of dollars. We really don’t need to do these tests.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Diane Ravitch, for people who don’t know who you are, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, you then took a very different turn after the data started coming in on charter schools, and fiercely opposed them. You wrote on your blog that Connecticut, where Dr. Cardona is from, experienced some of its worst charter scandals in the nation. I was wondering if you could tell us that history. And then let’s pivot to Betsy DeVos — right? — sister of Erik Prince, his company’s four people, mercenaries, just pardoned by President Trump for the murder of Iraqis at the Nisoor Square massacre, but Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, talking about people having to join “the resistance” against Biden when he comes in, inside the Education Department. But start with Connecticut and what happened there.

DIANE RAVITCH: OK. Back in about 2014, Connecticut had a massive scandal. The governor at that time, whose name I can’t recall, was a huge — although he was a Democrat, he was very supportive of charters, and he encouraged charters to open. Connecticut doesn’t have a lot of charters. I think they have 21, which is a small number compared to a state, for example, like California, which has over a thousand, or even New York state, which has hundreds of charters. But Connecticut had a huge scandal. There was something called the FUSE — F-U-S-E — charters and the Jumoke charters. They were interconnected. And it turned out that they were being run by someone who was a convicted felon, and his record was never reviewed by the state. There were also charges of nepotism. And basically, a chunk of that charter chain closed down, but it’s still there, and it had to clean up its act.

But having experienced that scandal, Connecticut should have looked very closely at the whole charter idea. Instead, they’ve contained it. Connecticut happens to be home to one of the earliest of the no-excuses charter chains. “No excuses” means that kids are disciplined in a very harsh manner. They look to me not like innovation, but rather like a school from a hundred years ago, where school was almost like, in many respects, a penal institution. Kids are not allowed to talk to each other in the hallways. They’re disciplined for the smallest things. And that chain is called Achievement First. It’s since spread into Rhode Island. And three of the Achievement First charter schools right now are on probation. They were put there last spring because of their — they have high test scores because they kick out the kids who don’t get high test scores, but they have very harsh discipline. And the state said that they really had to act more like public schools.

So, he was the commissioner at that time the state Board of Education took a strong stand against the Achievement First disciplinary practices. And so I’m hoping that he will — as he comes into the position of secretary of education, will expect more of charter schools. To me, the big issue with charter schools is this: There’s very little the federal government can do about them. I mean, Arne Duncan, who was Obama’s secretary of education, required states to open more and more charter schools, if they wanted access to a huge pot of federal money, $5 billion in the Race to the Top Fund. And what the secretary does now is to hand out $440 million every year to open new charter schools. Most of that money, under Betsy DeVos, has gone to corporate chains, and it’s gone to states that didn’t want the money and don’t want new charter schools. And then they open anyway because the money is there. So, I think that the first priority for the — in terms of charters, is to defund that $440 million slush fund, which DeVos used for her own private passion, which is undermining public schools and advancing privatization.

As for Betsy DeVos’s statement to the career staff at the Department of Education, I can tell you, having worked there, that the career staff is committed to the mission of providing support for public education, that with the exception of the people that she brought with her, who I hope will all be gone with her, the career staff does not share her goals and will not be resisting. I expect, if anything, that they will identify Trumpers who have been embedded into what appear to be career jobs but in fact are political people. And they know the difference, and they’ll share that with the incoming Biden team. They do not share her mission of undermining public education.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, we want to thank you for being with us, education historian, author, former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.

When we come back, the appointment to the Senate seat in California, the first Latinx U.S. senator from California. Stay with us.

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