(WORDINBLACK.COM) – The academic future of America’s more than 56 million K-12 students, 93 percent attending public schools, will be shaped significantly by President-elect Joe Biden’s new Secretary of Education, and several of California’s highly respected Black educators could play a key role in who gets the job.

Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) has been recommended to the Joe Biden transition team as a potential candidate for the U.S. Secretary of Education position. Dr. Weber is a veteran educator and currently chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus.  (Photo by Russell Stiger, Jr.)

Linda Darling-Hammond, California’s first African American Board of Education President, led President-elect Barack Obama’s education transition team in 2008, and is again riding point on education for the incoming Biden Administration. Ms. Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who has helped guide Gov. Gavin Newsom’s education policies in the time of COVID-19, had been viewed as a top candidate for the position by many, however, she has taken herself out of contention for the position.

A national coalition of Black and Latinx education, civil rights, panhellenic, faith and community-based organizations from 31 states recently identified their top picks to serve as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. Two California leaders — Assemblywoman Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and charter school operator Dr. Margaret Fortune — were among the recommendations.

Biden has promised to appoint “the most diverse cabinet in history,” and Ms. Darling-Hammond is well acquainted with Dr. Weber, a veteran educator and social justice reformer who chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus, and Dr. Fortune, president and CEO of Fortune School of Education, a Sacramento-based network of charter schools aimed at closing the African American achievement gap. Forty-four candidates were considered by the ad hoc group in a 90-minute Zoom call Oct. 28 — seven were advanced to Biden’s transition team. Senators Cory Booker (New Jersey) and Michael Bennet (Colorado) and educators Geoffery Canada, Dr. Sonya Brookins Santelises and Dr. Howard Fuller were also on the list.

The current U.S. Education Secretary, philanthropist and conservative Christian activist Betsy DeVos, the wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos Jr., had no experience in teaching or public education. DeVos backed federally funded vouchers for parents who wanted to opt out of public schools, which DeVos said she had little use for.

“She was a disaster,” Dr. Fortune said. “Whoever Biden chooses should be someone who has run educational systems, really knows the classroom and is or was an educator.”

Biden, whose wife, Dr. Jill Biden has taught English to children with emotional disabilities and high school and community college students, has said her husband, who received strong union support during the campaign, will be the “most pro-union President since F.D.R.”

POLITICO has reported that front-runners for Secretary of Education include American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a former high school history teacher, and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, former president of the National Education Association, who got her start as a cafeteria worker and went on to become Utah elementary school Teacher of the Year. These powerful teacher’s unions have been critical of charter schools which rarely have unions and operate beyond their influence.

Eskelsen Garcia, in an interview with Biden, said her union “has pushed back against what we think are very misguided school reforms, like charter schools,” saying they were committed to “fighting to save that neighborhood public school” and put the former vice president on the spot.

“I am not Betsy DeVos … no privately funded charter school will receive a penny of federal money, none,” said Biden, adding that a lot of charter schools were “significantly underperforming.”

But he did distinguish between private, independent charter schools — which are illegal in California and many other states — and those that are chartered by local school boards and county boards of education and fall under the public-school umbrella, including funding.

Biden acknowledged there are quality charter schools, “but they can’t come at the expense of public schools. We have to fully fund them, and any charter school that qualifies as a chartered public school has to be accountable to the same mechanisms that public schools are accountable to across the board, the same exact school boards, the same county boards of education. There has to be transparency.”

Dr. Fortune said she had just participated in her annual public hearing before the Sacramento County Board of Education, a vetting procedure she said is often more rigorous than non-charter public schools and districts go through. Insolvent public charters would “never be allowed to operate,” but insolvent school districts often carry on, Dr. Fortune said.

“California has the most public charter schools in the nation, and the President’s words matter; Obama said they are an important part of public education in America — high-performing charter schools serve 3.3 million students, 70 percent of them Black and Latinix,” she added.

In the South Bronx, 20 percent of the students at charter schools that are part of the Black Latinx Asian Charter Collaborative (BLACC) are special needs kids, said Miriam Raccah, founder of BLACC and co-organizer of the Zoom call.

“Our kids are from very challenged, underserved neighborhoods, and we’ve got a Department of Education grant that helps pay for supplies and staffing,” helping special ed teachers, kids with learning challenges, social workers and English Language learners, Ms. Raccah said. “We’ve been feeding families, providing fresh food from organic farms, our kids have their musical instruments and lessons online. We’ve had tremendous attendance and engagement with our kids. Our parents made this choice because they believe in it, and we want the U.S. to treat us as a valid part of the educational landscape.”

“Teachers unions say our kids are over-tested,” Dr. Fortune said, “but if you get rid of the measuring stick how are you going to know how Black and Latinx kids are doing nationally? We don’t have any problem keeping score at a basketball game, so what’s the problem with keeping score of our math assessment? What are we trying to hide? We put our kids’ data on the walls outside the classrooms every week so parents can hold us accountable. Education is number one for the fight for racial equality in this country, so I would insure we elevate models of high performing majority minority low income schools and convince the leaders of those schools to unpack their practices as examples for America.”

A former education adviser to two California governors, the Harvard-educated Fortune also served on the California State University Board of Trustees. “Biden acknowledges the education system is where we find systemic racism,” she said. “We need to spread what works around.”

Dr. Fortune’s “first choice” for Education Secretary is Dr. Weber, who combines the broad range of academic experience the Biden team says they’re looking for. She began as a teacher, dedicated herself to closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students, was elected president of the San Diego Unified School Board — one of the nation’s largest — and teaches African American Studies at San Diego State University.

The daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, Dr. Weber has a long record of community and public service. She chaired the San Diego Citizen’s Equal Opportunity Commission before being elected to the California Assembly in 2012, and in 2019 authored Assembly Bill 392, known as “The Stephon Clark Law” after Clark was shot to death by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard in March 2018. Signed by Gov. Newsom, it declared law enforcement can only use deadly force when “necessary,” and bars police from firing on fleeing suspects who don’t pose immediate danger. Weber called the law an “aggressive effort to retrain our officers and change the culture of police,” and after much negotiation, state law enforcement agencies dropped their opposition to it.

Dr. Weber, who helped start the first public charter school in San Diego and later pulled the plug when it wasn’t working, acknowledged, “One of the greatest challenges we’re facing in California and across the nation is the battle between charter schools and public schools.

“We need to create an environment where we are not attacking each other and realizing they are all public schools,” she said. “I know in California every school board election is a battle about charter and non-charter and our focus is on that rather than a focus on building more effective schools.”

She says she will put what’s best for every child first, even if adults try to get in the way. “We need to have every child in school and provide them with the kind of education they need — I have chalk dust on my soles. The definition of my life is to be there for poor kids, it is the new civil rights, it’s the hardest job that we can do and we must do — if we fail at that we will probably fail at everything else.”

Dr. Weber added that while not all charter school systems have been completely transparent or responsive to concerns, including high teacher turnover, “I tell the school board they have a direct responsibility to oversee these schools and they have to exercise this responsibility.”

“I was on San Diego’s first charter school and my last act on the school board was to shut down the charter school that was disrespecting the parents and not responding,” Dr. Weber said. “School boards have to stop shirking their responsibility over charter schools. There’s a tremendous potential to reach a group of kids that nobody is reaching; I will support them. We have to do everything we can to educate every child as best we can. At the same time we have folks who are preying on our kids and not educating our children. But you then have to deal with that school or county board. Their responsibility is not just to make charters but to monitor them and hold them accountable. We have a system that oftentimes ignored the concept of accountability.”

The first order of business for the new Education Secretary, Dr. Weber said, is to deal with the impact of the pandemic.

“What kind of things do we have to put in place to help those students who’ve experienced nine months of losing classes to catch up. I had friends in the South when they shut down schools for a year rather than comply with desegregation.”

Often, “The kids who have the greatest need don’t have direct access to personal instruction — that’s reality and we can’t just simply ignore it and walk away, we’ve had a pandemic. The Department is going to have to up its game to recruit teachers of color around the nation and pull up the teaching profession itself so it’s something that people desire to be a part of, to recruit teachers, create incentives.”

Across America, she said, “We’ve never dealt with the issue of accountability — directly related to the performance of our children — help parents understand the expectations …. and we must begin to measure ourselves by the performance of our students and how they do, keeping California and the nation very competitive.”

“It’s always a challenge when you’re high in the sky and try to figure out what’s on the ground,” Dr. Weber said. “This is all about accountability and helping folks to be excellent. Looking at districts that are really doing well and incentivize them to do more; make sure your superintendent is responsive. I have seven different districts in my Assembly District and I work with those superintendents and I know which ones are working hard and try to make sure they get grants too so they spread all their information to districts about equity and accountability. You have to constantly remind folks the reason why they even exist is they have kids who need them.”

“The Secretary of Education has a huge tent over thousands of school boards and 50 different state superintendents, and you work with them to understand the resources and grants we have available and provide them with the kind of support they need and incentivize them with the recognition they deserve,” she said

“Rather than ignoring the fact we have kids that are failing, we don’t write any kids off. It’s not easy work, but if you turn your back on it, it gets worse.”

Affluence can help lead to better education outcomes, but “it’s not about money alone. Schools in poor communities were getting two and three times more money than affluent schools for Title 1 money, and free and reduced lunch and local funding formulas give poor communities 60-70 percent more money but don’t always get the results we want.”

The first thing is to break stereotypes, Dr. Weber said. “Too often folks make assumptions that kids are poor and they can’t learn … the first task is to figure out where are the schools that are failing kids and why? A lot of it is the school board’s expectations, ability to recruit and retain teachers and engage parents. It is not the increase in money it’s how you spend your money – it’s the principal and administrator coupled with teachers who agree they are going to be successful and use your resources the best you can.”

Even in the same disadvantaged neighborhood, schools can experience very different outcomes.

“You often haven’t seen parental involvement in poorer schools — I’d be in one school that had complete chaos, teachers came when they felt like coming, kids out of control, the whole bit,” Dr. Weber said. “Then I go three or four blocks down to another elementary school in the same district, with a completely different environment — outcomes were dramatically different, due to leadership, teachers willing to work as a team and bringing in their parents.”

“Success lies with the people in the classroom, teachers, students, parents and administrators who support them. Every successful school has those ingredients, period … After years of failures, schools can turn around.”

Dr. Weber and Dr. Fortune said they have not yet heard from Biden’s transition team. Both said it would be an honor to serve the nation’s children, parents and educators.

By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Correspondent

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