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Democrats Press Trump Nominees on School Choice and Civil Rights

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Senate education committee Democrats used the confirmation hearing of two top U.S. Department of Education nominees to make their case against the Trump administration's favorite K-12 policy: School choice.

Both contenders have long records in pushing for charters, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and other types of school choice programs. Mick Zais, who has been tapped for deputy secretary of education, the No. 2 post at the agency, helped create a tax-credit scholarship for students in special education when he was the state chief in South Carolina.

And Jim Blew, who has been tapped as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy analysis, spent nearly a decade as the Walton Family Foundation's director of K-12 reform, advising the foundation on how to broaden schooling options for low-income communities.

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Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the panel, kicked off the hearing by saying that she finds it "troubling" that Zais shares Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' views on "privatization." And she told Blew that his "record of promoting school vouchers gives me pause that you will not stand up for students and public schools."

Senator after senator on the Democratic side of the dais echoed those concerns.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., for instance, asked Zais if he was aware that the research on the efficacy of school choice is "abysmal." Zais said, in his experience, broadening educational options improves student outcomes. But he agreed with Franken that the evidence for that is "anecdotal."

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked Blew if he thought students in special education should have to give up their rights to take advantage of a voucher program, as she said that students in Florida who use McKay scholarships must. Blew said that any school that takes federal funds has to follow the law, including protections for students in special education. 

And later Murray asked Blew if she thought that the charter sector in DeVos' home state of Michigan, which has been criticized for its lack of accountability, is a model for the nation. Blew cited a Stanford University study that he says shows students in Detroit perform better than their peers in public schools. Murray countered that that's not what she has seen in the research. (The evidence is indeed mixed. We wrote about Michigan's charter sector here.)  

Zais took heat, too, for his record in South Carolina. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked him  about  a 2015 bill in the South Carolina legislature calling for the National Rifle Association to develop a curriculum for K-12 students. Murphy asked Zais if political organizations should be allowed to design curriculum for K-12 schools.

Zais told him no, they shouldn't. And he said he didn't remember supporting that bill, even though he is in favor of students learning about the Second Amendment.

Several Democrats grilled Zais on his comments to the South Carolina press that it didn't make sense to spend money on five-year-olds because they can't learn.

"I do not recall having said that," Zais said, and talked about the learning his young grandchildren experienced before age five. He said he is in favor of early-childhood education, but sees it as a state issue.

The hearing also touched on a number of controversial issues and some of the Trump education department's missteps. For instance:

•ESSA: Alexander asked Zais if he's aware of the prohibitions against the Education Department in the Every Student Succeeds Act. He noted, for instance, that the Education Department can't tell a state that its student achievement goals aren't "ambitious enough," as DeVos' department initially told Delaware.

Zais said he wasn't familiar with Delaware's particular situation, but seemed to agree with Alexander that the federal role should be limited.

•Civil Rights: Murray also asked Zais if he agreed with Acting Assistant Secretary  for civil rights Candice Jackson's comments to the New York Times that 90 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol and breakups. Zais said he wasn't familiar with those comments, but seemed to agree that sexually assault should be taken seriously. (Jackson is slated to be replaced by Kenneth Marcus, the president of the Jewish Center for Human Rights. He would permanently fill the position.)

So will these folks get confirmed? Probably. Overall, the hearing was relatively fireworks-free, and nothing unexpected came up. 


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