Many teachers and educational staff are feeling hopeful for change in education under President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration.
After nearly four years of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ emphasis on school choice, voucher programs and charter schools, education advocates in Michigan are looking forward to public schools returning to the forefront of the conversation.
DeVos, a West Michigan native and longtime GOP donor, has been unpopular among educators largely because of her push for for-profit charter schools and inexperience in education.
Jeff Whittle, a paraprofessional at Macomb Intermediate School District and a member of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan advisory board, said that he wants to see an empathetic secretary of education.
“I want to see somebody who is empathetic to what educators are going through, what students are going through and then willing to do the work,” Whittle said. “We know that Betsy DeVos was not willing to do that work. She didn’t care. She did not care.”
Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Paula Herbart is hoping to see someone in the office who is “deep in the work of education.”
Herbart said she’s been involved in the conversations around who Biden may pick as his secretary of education, but she isn’t at liberty to share who is on the upcoming president’s list of candidates.
Some names that have been floated include two well-known in union circles, former National Education President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond also has been mentioned.
Whoever Biden picks, Herbart is hopeful that person will have a background in education, knowledge of education policy and an understanding of what students and educators need to be successful.
But after DeVos’ time in office, “there’s a lot of undoing to do,” Herbart said.
Herbart warns that just because DeVos is stepping down from the national stage does not mean that Michigan has seen the last of her.
“In Michigan, of course, we will have Betsy DeVos back in our backyard again, and I believe that the policies that she tried to really ramp up on a federal level will come back to us here in Michigan,” Herbart said. “If she tries to bring those failed policies back to Michigan, we will work to defeat her every step of the way, because we know here in Michigan, that that’s not right for our students.”
Herbart is confident that under the Biden administration, public education will be represented well. First-lady elect Jill Biden is a community college professor at Northern Virginia Community College and plans to continue, which would make her the first woman in her position to work outside the home.
“For American educators, it is a great day for y’all,” the president-elect said during his victory speech Saturday. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”
Herbart said she is confident that Biden will look to the first lady for advice when tackling education issues.
“I think that she will provide a really great sounding board for the president to ensure that he’s thinking about all aspects when he’s looking at a secretary of education, and then someone who can help him develop his education policy as he grows into his presidency,” she said.
Also notable, Biden will be the first president to have graduated from a state university since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the first person to hold that office who graduated from a historically black college or university (HBCU).
Jeff Pietrowski, a middle school teacher at Grandville Public Schools and a member of the Michigan Democratic Party, is looking forward to Biden improving the COVID-19 pandemic and providing schools with the equipment they need to remain open.
“Schools have just been left hanging with little to no direction,” he said.
Pietrowski is expecting Biden to implement a comprehensive COVID-19 plan so schools have guidance on when schools can be open and when they need to close. He also said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hopes that Biden will allocate extra funding to schools for new technology, like broadband internet, and funding for personal protective equipment.
Outside of the pandemic, Pietrowski said education leaders in the White House need to “get rid of for-profit charter schools right away” and ending high-stakes testing, which he says are “putting further divides in education.”
Whittle said he wants Biden’s administration to revitalize the focus on recruitment and retainment of educators.
Michigan has been facing a teacher shortage for years. According to federal data, Michigan is the second worst state in the country, only behind Oklahoma in teacher preparation program enrollment. From 2008 to 2017, enrollment in these programs in Michigan has dropped by 71%.
“I hope that starts turning around when we have somebody that actually promotes this career, what it means to these communities, to these students, to have a positive frame of this profession. We don’t have that with [DeVos],” Whittle said.
Herbart believes Biden will be able to “hit the ground running” on funding for public schools, creating an equitable education system and reconfiguring standardized testing.
“One of [Biden’s] top priorities is the over emphasis on standardized testing. Of course, that’s something that we have always been fighting against,” Herbart said. “We believe in testing, we believe it’s really important to identify instructional needs to assess students … as opposed to what’s happening now, which is tests three and four times a year, and then punish those areas where students aren’t achieving.”
What we need to get back to is prioritizing the common good for Michigan students, Herbart said.
“I’m hopeful that President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will put their eye towards the constitutional understanding of what is best for the common good,” she said.