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Pete Buttigieg on DeVos, Charter Schools, and the Federal Role in Education

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It's unusual for criticisms of a cabinet official to play a role in a presidential primary. And it's even more unusual for a candidate to fundraise using ads attacking the U.S. Secretary of Education. But that's just what South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has done as he's sought to distinguish himself from a crowded Democratic presidential primary field.

In a series of social media ads, Buttigieg says U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has "turned her back on lower-income and middle class Americans" by slow-walking of Obama-era regulations designed to protect students from predatory lenders and for-profit colleges. [DeVos has sought to target the program to a narrower slice of defrauded students, saying some debt relief could amount to "free money."]

In a phone interview from Los Angeles on Wednesday, Buttigieg spoke with Education Week about DeVos, the federal role in education, teacher pay, and his views on charter schools, which have been an unusually prominent topic in the primary.

To be sure, Buttigieg is not the only candidate who has criticized DeVos, a popular target for Democratic candidates courting teachers' unions for an endorsement. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a whole section on her Senate webpage called "DeVos watch," and has pledged to nominate a public school teacher to the role if elected. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders prominently included DeVos this week in a video criticizing the rich and the powerful

DeVos aside, Buttigieg's education plans include a call to expand Title I, the federal grant program for schools with large enrollments of low-income students, partially as a way of boosting teacher pay. His racial equity plan also calls for promoting a diverse teacher workforce by adding regulations to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that would require states and districts to report additional data on their teacher hiring practices, and directing Title II professional development funds to support educational leaders of color.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You are not the only candidate to single out Secretary DeVos. Why target her in ads when there are federal officials—like the attorney general, for example—who have more power?

There are no shortage of cabinet appointees to take issue with. But I think there's something particularly egregious with what's happening with Betsy DeVos in the Department of Education because it's not just somebody who's taking the department in a direction I disagree with. She's somebody who, in my view, is actively undermining the very purpose of the department.

The Department of Education is supposed to support federal policy and to implement a federal vision on public education. And I don't think our secretary of education believes in public education at all. And it's reflected in a lot of the decisions being made, and it's deeply problematic because those decisions reach into schools and districts in every part of the country. So many lives are impacted by the inability of this administration to deliver real improvements in resources for teachers and schools.

What do you see as the federal role in education?

Well, I think that right now you have a moment where the federal government could be doing a lot more to support our schools, our teachers, and our families. First of all, there's an inequity in resources, and it's clear that we could do some smoothing of that at a federal level.

We can also reset the way our country thinks about the compensation of teachers through federal support for better teacher pay. I think that at its best, the Department of Education could be supporting the development of teachers as a professional class that gets the same regard as a lot of other professions in this country. And I think so much of the challenge ahead of us when it comes to getting K-12 education right relies on building that profession up.

We've seen a lot of push at the state level to raise teacher pay. Why do you see a federal role here? And how would you factor in that some states have already made more of a commitment to this issue?

Well, I think that we can set this up as a package that is made available to districts focused on Title I schools that really need the support. But we also need to create provisions in there so that doesn't just get clawed back because the federal dollars are coming in as though that were an excuse for the state dollars to be withdrawn.

I think it's important because this really does need to be made into a norm. And I think it's not gonna happen without a federal nudge. I'm glad that some states are talking about this, but we know just nationally that teachers as a class are undercompensated. If I'm not mistaken, this is the first time that a majority of teachers report that they would not recommend their own kids go into the profession, which is, I think, an alarming statistic, and I think largely tied back to compensation. 

Title I covers a massive amount of schools. Do you have any idea of the scale or any more specifics about how you would execute that plan?

What I will say is that this is going to require a major investment. And, you know, investments of this kind, unlike for example, tax cuts on the very wealthiest, actually pay back. There's a return on those investments. ... But it does mean that in the near term, we're gonna have to be willing to step up and fund it with a very healthy level of funding.

What do you see as the role of charter schools? Do you think that the federal government should support them or play any more of a greater role in oversight?

I think that we want to see considerably more oversight, but a lot of that I think should happen at the local level.

I think that the promise of charter schools has been that ideas can be piloted there that will then benefit the overall system and find their way into traditional public schools. But I'm skeptical that we're going to gain a lot through expansion of charter schools when we still have such severely underfunded traditional public education. And that's where the focus of our efforts is going to be, especially when you also see a risk that often the development of charters comes at the expense of the very traditional systems that we're trying to build up and support. That's also the reason why I believe that we need to move away from for-profit charter schools altogether.

And would you take any action to make that happen? Or do you just believe that it would be good to see [a move away from "for-profit" charter schools] at the state level?

We'll lay out more in a forthcoming release, but I do think that we need to take steps to stop the expansion of for-profit [charter] schools and that we need to find ways to encourage a comparable level of accountability and transparency, with federal nudges, for state and local jurisdictions.

What would you look for in an education secretary?

Well, I certainly want experience in public education. I would want a commitment to serving those who are underserved right now. I would want an understanding of how to balance federal and local roles, including looking at ways that federal resources can continue to help smooth out the extent to which low-income students are punished for living in low-income districts. And I would want somebody who welcomes innovation, but understands that you can't have innovation without supporting teaching as a profession.

Some education reform advocates say this emphasis on providing more federal resources without more accountability is misguided. Do see any role for encouraging more academic accountability at the federal level?

The risk is, you know, in Indiana for example, we've had a lot of accountability that hasn't actually tracked and measured the right things.

Of course we want to make sure that the resources are being well spent. But, when you see a glaring issue of students simply entering the buildings at a disadvantage, and when you see the simple fact that the teaching profession is undercompensated and not supported enough, I think that we will be pushing on a string as long as there is such an emphasis on accountability that we ignore the problem of resources.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a Veteran's and Mental Health Town Hall event, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in Manchester, N.H. --Mary Schwalm/AP


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