Before he ousted longtime Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel in a stunning primary win earlier this year, Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman was a public middle school principal in New York City. Now, as he prepares to enter the House, Bowman hopes to push President-elect Joe Biden to choose a Secretary of Education that would understand the struggles faced by public school educators.
Bowman’s short list includes Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teacher’s union in the country; Dr. Betty Rosa, New York’s state education commissioner; and Freeman Hrabowski, the long time president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The three represent an important set of criteria for Bowman: Rosa and Weingarten were in-classroom educators. All three have experience focusing on underrepresented kids — whether as first-time English learners like Rosa, or an administrator who has emphasized opportunities for Black students in the science and medical fields, like Hrabowski. In Weingarten’s case, Bowman said she also fits the need for a “resurgence of labor.”
Bowman has been a vocal critic of policies put in place in recent years — including by the Obama administration. He’s a staunch critic of charter schools and has advocated against the Common Core standards and the emphasis on standardized testing, despite his own school’s high performance in them. He said his conversations with the Biden team have been positive — but he’s still operating with caution.
Democrats were united in their opposition to the Trump administration’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but there are still a lot of unresolved policy disputes within the Democratic Party around reforming the education system and holding schools accountable to universal standards.
“I think Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos were good villains, in terms of pushing back on their education policy and looking at Betsy DeVos’ record in Michigan in terms of the charter school implementation she tries to do there,” Bowman said. “But we also need to understand that there are many people who present differently than Trump and DeVos, but share a similar ideology.”
Obama’s Department of Education received a lot of flack during his tenure, both from conservatives, but also from teacher’s unions who argued the administration’s policies punished underperforming schools instead of supporting them. The National Education Association called for Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s resignation because of his support for standardized testing. The American Federation of Teachers came very close to doing the same.
As Biden’s transition team continues to roll out its cabinet nominees, there’s been a lot of speculation around the Department of Education. Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association, have been floated. Pro-charter school groups instead have been pushing for the superintendents of school systems in major cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Bowman said Biden’s selection will show whether the party has internalized that Obama-era criticism.
Here is HuffPost’s conversation with Bowman on his view of the future of the Department of Education.
I heard you have some people you would be happy to see as the next Secretary of Education. Why don’t you talk me through that?
Well, there are many amazing educators across the country. Many can do the job. I just tried to narrow it down to a short list of people. So, first, someone I mentioned: Dr. Betty Rosa is currently the commissioner of education in New York state. She was formally the chancellor of the. Board of Regents of New York state, but more importantly, she’s a former English language learner in New York city schools. And she has been a teacher, school principal and school superintendent before, before moving to the state level. And it’s just that intimate experience, knowledge and understanding of what happens in our K-12 schools from the perspective of a student and someone who was a teacher, school leader and district leader is paramount.
For someone who’s looking to lead education throughout the country, there’s so many kids with so many different needs, but when you’re an ESL student, you have the empathy to understand kids who struggle with learning and how learning could be foreign to you. So, Betty Rosa is definitely someone I want to mention as part of this conversation.
I also want to mention Randi Weingarten, who some may think, wait a minute, she’s a labor leader. One of the things about Randi is Randi was also a classroom teacher. She’s not just a labor union leader, but the leader of the second largest labor union in the country. An organizer from that space, really working to pull groups together, from different backgrounds, from different parts of the country to work for education justice, not just for teachers, but for kids as well. She has a grassroots spirit to her.
I also wanted to mention Freeman Hrabowski, who’s the president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He’s been in that position for quite some time and is constantly rated as one of the highest-ranking educators in the country. And someone who does particularly well with Black children in both STEM fields and the medical field. That’s just remarkable because Black children are often written off when it comes to those fields. I wanted to mention those three.
Teachers themselves have been under attack and under assault from the charter lobby, from the privatization lobby, for the last 20 years. Now’s the time for not just teachers unions to come back but for organized labor to come back stronger than ever. Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman
There was a lot of pushback from organized labor against the Obama administration’s education department. Do you sense there’s a serious divergence between what the Biden administration is signaling?
Well, it depends on who President-elect Joe Biden chooses, right? But I think this time in our country’s history, not just when it comes to education, but when it comes to labor overall, it’s time for the resurgence of labor, the rebirth of labor, as opposed to what’s been in place for the last several decades, which is the concentration of wealth, and labor not really sharing equitably in the wealth they create from a corporate, private industry perspective.
Teachers themselves have been under attack and under assault from the charter lobby, from the privatization lobby, for the last 20 years. When you look at No Child Left Behind policies, and their support of charter schools, you see that we still have an achievement gap. Looking at performance, on average, charter school students and public school students perform about the same, and the benefit has been mostly to hedge fund investors who’ve invested in charter schools and the charter lobby. So, teachers have been abused over the last several decades. And now’s the time for not just teachers unions to come back but for organized labor to come back stronger than ever.
Can you share a personal story, from the perspective of an educator, seeing policy federally that just didn’t resonate with the needs in the classroom?
Well, the implementation of the Common Core standards is one of those moments. What we had at the time was the implementation of new standards, implementation of new testing that was high stakes, all at the same time. And it was just dumped on our schools and dumped on our kids without teachers given an opportunity to unpack and gain an understanding of the type of the standards. And what happened was our kids bombed the test and teachers in schools were held accountable. I’m not against standards. I’m for standards. I’m against the misuse of high-stakes testing and the alignment of standards, especially when those tests are not created by teachers who are going to be implementing the standards, and how those tests are more about punishment than they are about support and intervention.
That was a huge deal in our schools both here in New York City and across the country. We need to take a much more bottom-up approach.
One other policy that I will mention is the policy of mayoral control. Mayoral control is something that disempowers communities from having a seat at the table to make the education decisions that best benefit their children. The mayors unilaterally make decisions for the entire school system. That’s another policy that has been harmful because it’s taken the voice of parents out of the equation.
Are there specific policies that the Biden campaign and now the transition team have not yet adopted that you want to push them toward?
Well, I haven’t heard conversation on ending standardized tests in grades three through eight. That absolutely needs to happen, and we need to take a different approach there. I haven’t seen conversation around the implementation of anti-bias, anti-racist and anti-bigotry curriculum. I think the age of Trump has revealed to all of us that we need to attack this issue of racism very explicitly in our K-12 system, so that we can learn and understand that we are more alike than we are different.
I’m happy to see that President-elect Biden has talked about canceling student debt, which is huge. And I hope that he and the new secretary of education really focus on that and get that done. And I’m also happy with seeing a president-elect focused on early childhood education and really understanding the needs to pass bold policy in the area of universal child care and early childhood education.
I haven’t heard conversation on ending standardized tests in grades three through eight, That absolutely needs to happen, and we need to take a different approach there. I haven’t seen conversation around the implementation of anti-bias, anti-racist and anti-bigotry curriculum. Bowman
Do you think the Democratic Party has learned lessons in the last four years on education policy?
All I can say is I hope so. I think Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos were good villains, in terms of pushing back on their education policy and looking at Betsy DeVos’ record in Michigan in terms of the charter school implementation she tries to do there. They were good villains. But we also need to understand that there are many people who present differently than Trump and DeVos, but share a similar ideology. And that’s the key, right? The key is understanding that what we’ve been doing over the last 20 years with No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act continues to fail our kids.
I’ve seen the names of those who run school districts in major cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia also floated. Why are they not on your list?
Well, specifically to those running the school districts in Chicago and Baltimore, they have experience and alignment with the charter school lobby that has been part of the attacks on teacher’s unions and the closing of public schools. So I would not include them in this list because I think the failure of charter schools and the charter school is well-documented, and that’s not something we need to continue as we go forward. The Department of Education is a monster. It’s huge. There are many educators who could do this job. I chose to go with people more on the state or federal level, not city level — or a college president in terms of Freeman’s experience.
These names that you’ve shared with me, you’ve shared with the Biden team already?
And did you get the impression that they’re on their shortlist as well?
I don’t know. I think Randi may have been, but I don’t know that for sure.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.