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Michelle Rhee Would Be A Terrible Choice For Education Secretary


Among all the other cabinet picks the DC piranhas are circling is a smaller one near and dear to my heart: U.S. education secretary. This is one of those positions that ought not matter as much as it does. I shouldn’t have to give a flying fig about whom Donald Trump picks for this position.

Unfortunately, I do, because as the Obama administration has proven, the U.S. education secretary wields too much power for our country’s good. Obama’s former education secretary Arne Duncan, among other things, participated in illegally forcing the entire country into Common Core, putting penis-wielding individuals in girls’ sleeping and showering quarters, expanding cradle-to-grave population tracking systems, and making schools punish kids according to their skin color.

There’s something there for everyone to hate, which is the point. Amassing and centralizing power is a key way to ensure its abuse, because power centers attract unsavory characters. Just watch any superhero movie to see this principle in action. Therefore, the key way to prevent abuse of power is to ensure it is widely dispersed.

This will be a central task for every incoming member of the Trump cabinet, but particularly in education, because it has no constitutional justification for being a federal function. While there are good arguments for running our national defense centrally, there are few for running schools from Washington. Consequently, public support for federal education meddling remains very low.

Besides, the Rumored Picks Are Suffocatingly Bad

So it’s troubling to see the names so far bandied about as potential education secretaries for the incoming President Trump. They largely suggest folks who directly contradict Trump’s anti-Common Core, pro-school choice stances on the campaign trail (and in policy statements).

The New York Times and Politico suggested Ben Carson, a very nice man who knows zero about education policy. At an Education Writers Association forum after the election, lobbyist Vic Klatt suggested former Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett and Rep. Luke Messer, both bureaucrat-friendly Common Core-niks. The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess has the most decent list I’ve seen (although I have zero interest in moving to DC, as he suggests): “U.S. Secretary of Education: Mitch Daniels, Scott Walker, Bill Evers, Gerard Robinson.” Warmer, and I love Mitch Daniels overall, but he brought Common Core into our state and Scott Walker ensured it remains in Wisconsin. Nope.

Brett Baier of Fox News suggested two of the possibly worst ideas I’ve seen: Eva Moskowitz, a New York City union antagonist who runs Success Academy Charter Schools, and Michelle Rhee, former leader of Washington DC public schools and founder of lobbying organization StudentsFirst. Both fit into Trump’s celebrity ethos and are better-known by the media, but neither has the proclivities to be an education secretary that accomplishes his promises to voters.

Would These Folks Pull Off Trump’s Promises to America?

Let’s review those promises as criteria for the person to fulfill them. Trump has been adamantly anti-Common Core and adamantly pro-school choice, proposing on the latter an interesting plan to dramatically expand states’ work opening up school vouchers by lifting red tape from existing federal education dollars (details highly important but TBD). During the campaign, Trump constantly promised to “Get rid of Common Core – keep education local!” In his last big ad before the election, Trump pledged his administration would be about “Replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people.”

So we have some criteria for a Trump education secretary: Anti-Common Core. Pro-school vouchers. Anti-establishment. Insistent on returning power to the people (e.g., “relinquishment“). Trump has even floated the idea of cutting the U.S. Department of Education. Conservatives have desired this since before the Reagan administration, which also promised but failed to end that regulation factory. Since federal involvement in education made Common Core and all its predecessors possible and amplifies their likelihood of coming back in even worse iterations, cutting USDOE is the only way to truly fulfill Trump’s promise to “end Common Core.”

Whether he’ll do it is anyone’s guess, but he has repeatedly pledged to. His own legal tussles with the department regarding Trump University may provide personal motivation, which for him seems to be effective. I don’t know what is legitimate in that squabble or not, but I frankly don’t care if a personal vendetta is what gets USDOE axed. I’ll be hollering hallelujahs in the streets.

There’s Only One Fitting Name, and Rhee Isn’t It

Now to consider the proposed education secretaries against these criteria. It’s very obvious that the only suggested name that actually lines up with Trump’s campaign rhetoric is Williamson (Bill) Evers, who is helping run Trump’s education transition team and has impeccable academic and policy credentials. He’s a Hoover Institution fellow, helped create some of the nation’s highest-quality math and English standards and tests in California, has worked as an assistant secretary in USDOE, and has even sat on local school boards. I’ve testified next to him against Common Core at several state legislative repeal hearings; he’s an excellent choice, both on the merits and on fit for Trump’s team. My grassroots friends and I have started a petition asking Trump to nominate him or another well-qualified individual such as Hillsdale College’s Larry Arnn or Dr. Sandra Stotsky.

Rhee, on the other hand, doesn’t fit Trump at all. For one, she’s highly skeptical of school choice. She strongly supports charter schools, a good but highly managed government alternative to traditional public schools, and prominently reversed her opposition to vouchers in 2013. Yet she still supports a highly regulated version of vouchers driven by applying the tests to them that public schools use, which undercuts their very premise. We don’t want to use vouchers to mold private schools into the public schools whose failure justifies vouchers in the first place, but to provide diversity of parent choice in education. That requires light regulation.

“There are a lot of people out there who sort of believe, the free market, let the free market reign, the market will correct itself — give every kid a backpack with their [sic] money in it and let them choose wherever they want to go,” she said in a 2012 interview. “I don’t believe in that model at all.” Instead, she supports highly limited and highly regulated voucher programs just for poor families, not all taxpayers. (The public, on the other hand, prefers universal vouchers to programs targeted exclusively at poor families.)

Rhee also very prominently fought to defend Common Core after parents nationwide succeeded in publicizing their bipartisan, now-majority opposition to it. She used her star power to promote Common Core in myriad high-profile fora. Her StudentsFirst organization advocated for drastically expanding government data collection of both students and teachers, and merged with advocacy group 50CAN this spring, which puts expanding government preschool programs and supporting Common Core among its core priorities. In other words, Rhee is a liberal at heart who was mugged into seeing the conservative truths about the negatives of teachers unions and education monopolies, but her instincts lean opposite Trump’s on education.

The same overall analysis applies to Moskowitz, who is a hero to rightish media such as the Wall Street Journal because she hails from New York City where many media outlets are located, but the union intransigence Rhee and Moskowitz are famous for confronting is largely a fading last-century fight mostly still pertinent only at lower levels of government and blue cities that are budget and governance hellholes. Teacher unions have been losing membership nationwide for years, and are not particularly key in federal policy, especially for an incoming presidential administration that owes them precisely nothing.

Send Someone Who Gives Power Back to the People

“When Donald Trump talked on the campaign trail about ‘the forgotten men and women’ of America, many of us who have been fighting Common Core in the trenches felt like he was talking to us,” my friend Heather Crossin, a pivotal grassroots Common Core leader, told Breitbart yesterday. “We are counting on President-elect Trump to stand up and fight for us against the powerful special interests, who not only profit off of Common Core but who pull the strings of the vast majority of politicians in both parties.”

Look, like everyone else I’m not sure what to expect of a President Trump. I do look forward to instability for the administrative state. If he keeps them in a tizzy with petulant fights, they will be less likely to pester me. And I know that all politicians make grandiose promises they won’t keep. So on some level there is no point speculating about who Trump should or should not appoint to this or that position. No politician is going to save the country or make it great again.

The extent to which that is possible depends on letting we, the people, make America great again at the level of personal relationships. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more true than in education, an intensely personal endeavor. The way for Donald Trump to make America great again — or, as Twitter wags have it on his education pick, #MakeAmericaSmartAgain — is to return to individual Americans the freedom to run our own affairs. To jumpstart a lasting restoration of our country, rather than a cult of personality that fades with him like Obama’s, a President Trump needs to make the bureaucracy small again. It must decrease, so we can increase.