Week in review: Right-wing Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos reportedly in the mix for Trump education secretary

Harassment and intimidation complaints in schools spiked after last week’s election, and Michigan officials are pleading with “educators at all levels” to help stop the bullying:

“Our schools must be safe havens for our children – free from hate; free from intimidation; free from bullying; and free from fear.”

— State Superintendent Brian Whiston

The election fallout comes as Michigan political watchers wait to see whether an influential figure in state education policy could join the new Trump administration. Read on for more details and the rest of the week’s education news.

Ed sec speculation hits home

As Donald Trump prepares to become president in January, a powerful — and controversial — figure in state education politics is in the mix as a possible education secretary in the Trump administration.

Republican Betsy DeVos helped lead an unsuccessful push to change the state constitution to allow private school vouchers and has been a strong supporter of school choice programs. She sparked criticism this year when together with other wealthy family members, she flooded state lawmakers with campaign cash as they debated whether to include oversight for charter schools in their Detroit schools legislation. They didn’t.

It could be weeks before we know who Trump will choose, but one prominent native Detroiter whose name had been floated says he’s not interested. And while some say that whoever does get the job won’t have much influence under existing federal law, others in Michigan want the U.S. Education Department shuttered completely.

Other names in the education secretary mix include former Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett and New York City charter school mogul Eva Moskowitz, who said Thursday that she doesn’t want the job. As Trump appears to be considering education reformers, they face a stark choice: serve or steer clear?

Election aftermath

After his statement Monday that lamented the election’s impact on the “actions, demeanor and mood in some of our schools,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston followed up the next day with another message, this time issued jointly with the state’s top civil rights official. They called on “every administrator, teacher, staff member, parent, guardian, bus driver and student” to “stand as one in condemning intolerable conduct regardless of message or motivation.” The second statement also included a list of resources and specific guidance for schools.

That effort came as some parents at a Grosse Pointe school were angered by a unity message broadcast after the election by the school’s Muslim principal. And a Birmingham teacher is under fire for tweets that questioned the values of his largely white students in the wake of the election.

Those incidents, which follow high profile events last week like the viral video of Royal Oak students chanting “build that wall” in a school cafeteria, are part of a growing national tally of post-election bullying and harassment in schools.

It’s not all negative though. Students at this Michigan school created a “wall of positivity.” And these middle schoolers are doing their part to spread unity and kindness.

In Detroit:

  • The Detroit News says the new Detroit school board must prove itself. Arguing that “despite a couple of bright spots,” the new board “doesn’t offer a lot of hope for the district’s variability,” the paper urged the board to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent. But Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather should be an option, the paper wrote: “She’s done well in her role.”
  • The success of the Wayne County tax hike vote last week might inspire neighboring counties to seek similar votes in upcoming elections.
  • The heads of two prominent local foundations explain why they’re launching a “bold, city-wide engagement to bring the needs of Detroit’s youngest citizens, from birth to age 8, to the forefront.”
  • A local after-school program that teaches low-income children to play classical music was honored this week by the White House.
  • One advocate says Detroit needs more college pipeline programs.
  • The private companies that now run school buses in Detroit have adapted to recent changes and technology.
  • A school bus crashed into a manufacturing plant on Detroit’s northwest side, injuring the driver. No kids were on the bus.
  • A former Detroit Public Schools CEO has died.

Across the state:

  • Without state oversight, dual enrollment programs that are supposed to help students earn free college credits while still in high school are diminishing. While the programs have grown in popularity, not all colleges accept the credits.
  • State officials want public input on how best to respond to changes in federal education law and are holding public forums around the state.
  • What would it cost to pay Michigan teachers the way we pay doctors? A lot.
  • One advocate warns that a teacher pension crisis is looming in Michigan.
  • A suburban teacher’s aide pleaded guilty to charges related to sexaul contact with students.
  • Police at a suburban high school are investigating whether a student threatened to carry out a school shooting.
  • A suburban high school is hosting a “Prep for Success” educational symposium this weekend to help over 1,000 students and their parents get help with study skills, test prep and academic guidance.

From Chalkbeat:

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

parting ways

No fireworks in Houston as school board bids farewell to Carranza

PHOTO: Houston Independent School District
Houston school board members and elected officials discussed the departure of their superintendent Richard Carranza, who will be New York City's next schools chief.

Houston’s school board didn’t put up a fight Tuesday while ironing out the details of superintendent Richard Carranza’s departure to become New York City schools chancellor.

The Houston Independent School District board will have to negotiate the terms of Carranza’s leave since his contract runs through August 2019. But the board’s response to his move lacked the theatrics of last week’s Miami-Dade County school board emergency meeting to discuss the city’s first pick for chancellor, Alberto Carvalho.

That emergency meeting stretched on for hours with tearful pleas from students and board members who begged Carvalho to stay. In the end, Carvalho rejected the New York City job on live television.

At a press conference, Houston leaders put up no such fight for Carranza, who has only been in office there less than two years. Board trustee Sergio Lira said he expects the negotiations to end Carranza’s contract will go smoothly.

“We’re going to release him from his contract with the least harm,” Lira told Chalkbeat.  “We want to wish him the best and don’t want to impede his departure.”

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Carranza would replace retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down at the end of March. The mayor’s pick came as a surprise in both New York City and Houston, as Carranza’s name had not surfaced publicly during the months-long search for a successor.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the president of Houston’s board of trustees, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, said Carranza had given his two weeks notice — “give or take.” He is expected to continue working during that time, rather than take leave.

Houston appears stoic, even though Carrzanza’s abrupt departures adds to an already long list of challenges. The school system faces a $115 million budget gap, the threat of state takeover and ongoing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

“We are aware of our challenges and we each have our own responsibility in solving our challenges,” Skillern-Jones said at the press conference.

Peppered with questions about how Carranza’s departure could add to the list of difficulties, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner interjected:

“Enough on Carranza. I wish him well,” Turner said. “But now the focus is on the 215,000 kids who are still here, depending on the rest of us to come together.”

Monica Disare contribute reporting.