When President Jimmy Carter worked with Congress to create the Department of Education as a cabinet-level division of the federal government, he – along with parents and educators – envisioned the Secretary of Education as the advocate for the nation’s children and their education. I’ve written about the dangers of concentrating too much power in one office, of so centralizing authority that it could easily be abused. In the appointment of Betsy DeVos, a self-proclaimed opponent of public education, my cautions seem warranted as Ms. DeVos showed in her confirmation hearing little interest in and even less knowledge about the duties of her office to support the nation’s schools. Her chilly and, frankly, smug interactions with the senators questioning her, and her fierce devotion to dismantling our public schools to replace them with a “market” of commercial and religious schools, means the struggle to protect, enhance and support our children’s schools will take our keenest vigilance, our collective advocacy, and our best ideas.
And that got me to thinking: what if… What if the Secretary of Education understood the gravity of the position: “I am the face of the nation’s children in every meeting of the president’s Cabinet. I am the voice of America’s children and the first and strongest advocate for their well-being and their education.” I started wondering what such a person, stepping into the role in a spirit of humility and deep obligation to our children, would do.
Feel free to cue up John Lennon’s “Imagine” as you imagine along with me:
Imagine a Secretary of Education who rushes to meet with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, saying “You and I have a job to do. Children learn best when they are healthy. I need you to work with me to make sure every child in America has good, affordable health insurance and a doctor and well-staffed clinic nearby.”
Imagine a Secretary of Education who insists on a meeting with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, reminding him that children learn best when they and their family have a safe place to live. “Together,” she would say, “we need to bring in mayors, school leaders, builders, bankers, and members of Congress to come up with -- and fund and stay on top of -- creative solutions to the need for affordable housing all across the country.”
Imagine a Secretary of Education who understands what it means to work hard and still struggle to support a family, who knows that holding two jobs and still making minimum wage leaves little time to read to your kids. Imagine that Secretary of Education summoning the Secretary of Labor to get together over coffee to hammer out a plan for federal legislation to guarantee a fair and living wage – with benefits – for America’s workers. If such a plan needs input about tax laws, she would invite the Secretary of the Treasury to join them. If the president is serious about a huge federal infrastructure investment, bring in the financial advisers to make sure all the jobs created pay fair wages, with benefits.
Imagine a Secretary of Education who pleads with the Attorney General: “Look, I know your record on civil rights is not stellar, but this is your chance to correct that legacy. American kids are counting on me to make sure they are all treated fairly, whether at home or at school or in their communities. I need you to help make sure no one discriminates against a child because of his race, her religion, their gender or culture or country of origin. Jeff, you can do this – and without you, I can’t be sure we can get all these kids through school.”
Imagine a Secretary of Education who knows that little minds have trouble learning when the children are afraid. She would march over to the Homeland Security building and barge in on the Secretary’s border enforcement budget meeting: “If kids think they might be picked up by ICE, or that their parents may disappear while they are at school, they can’t concentrate on their lessons. You know that rounding up immigrants violates our cherished due process protections and just makes people in our country and abroad cynical about America’s commitment to the rule of law. Work with me here. We can come up with creative ways to protect families – and it will take both of us to convince Jeff Sessions and the loudest anti-immigrant supporters of the President. But an education is a human right. We’re Cabinet members! We can do this!”
Imagine a Secretary of Education who can’t bear the thought of hungry children, children whose neighborhoods may be “food deserts” without healthy grocery stores or farmers’ markets, children eating un-nutritious fast foods that are cheaper than vegetables. That Secretary of Education would call on the Secretary of Agriculture to collaborate in ways that benefit farmers, children and healthy grocery stores.
She’s the same Secretary who would venture to the Pentagon to enlist the Secretary of Defense in removing the military’s access to students’ personal social media information and school records and instead using the power of his office to advocate for publicly-funded higher education so that poor youth don’t have to see fighting in wars as their only path to a skill and an education.
A sign in my office urges “Imagine the Possibilities.” Yes, let’s do! Let’s imagine what would be possible for America’s children and their education if a Secretary of Education assumed that office in the spirit of humility and obligation that being the voice of America’s children requires. We believe all children can learn. Imagine for a minute that all adults – including those in high office – can too.