Biden’s Education Secretary? The Case for Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania

The scholar specializes in bridging differences in a democracy, which is just what the riven education world needs.

We need to fund neighborhood schools and pay their teachers more! We need more charter schools and higher academic standards! That’s been the debate inside the Democratic Party since the days of Barack Obama, who stood squarely in the charters-and-standards camp. Joe Biden is reportedly considering the appointment of former National Education Association President Lily Eskelen Garcia or American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten as his Secretary of Education, which would signal a move away from Obama and the traditional-schools model.

But I’ve got a better idea: how about choosing someone who isn’t identified with one team or the other but instead specializes in forging discussion and compromise between them?

I’m talking about University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, who is rumored to be under consideration for the secretary post as well. Gutmann is America’s leading scholar of democratic dialogue, the skills and habits that allow us to converse across our differences. So, she’s the best candidate for healing Democrats’ internal rift over schools.

Hardly an armchair academic, Gutmann runs an enormous institution with a $3.5 billion budget, a $14.5 billion endowment, and over 18,000 staff. She’s also my boss, at least nominally, which makes all of this a bit, um, awkward. So, let me get a few things out of the way, lest anyone think I’m trying to get into her good graces. I already have the most coveted prize in academia: an office with a window. (As Henry Kissinger famously quipped, our in-fighting is brutal because the stakes are so small.) More seriously, I have tenure and an endowed chair. There’s nothing I want or need from Amy Gutmann, whom I’ve met precisely once in my four years at Penn.

But I do want her to lead the Department of Education, where her commitment to compromise would leaven the take-no-prisoners spirit that permeates the moment. Consider the battle over charter schools, probably the most controversial question in public education. If you’re a traditionalist, charters represent an effort to “destroy public schools” by turning them over to greedy capitalists. To charter advocates, meanwhile, their critics are putting the interests of bloated administrations and teacher unions (most charter schools aren’t unionized) ahead of “the kids.”

The two sides never frame the debate as a reasonable disagreement about common ends. I’ve been in enough education debates to know that you rarely hear the words, “I see the world differently, and therefore disagree about what would be best for children.” Instead, the tone is, “I care about them, and you don’t.”

So, if you support the Common Core, Obama’s effort to promote more rigorous school curricula, you’re a shill for testing companies; if you’re against it, you want the kids (again, the kids) to remain mired in mediocrity.

And, most recently, if you want urban public schools to open during the COVID-19 pandemic, you obviously don’t care about the health of the mostly minority children who attend them. And if you’re opposed to opening the schools, you’re indifferent to black and brown students falling even further behind in their academic achievement.

We’ve seen this brain-dead debate play out in my hometown of Philadelphia, which recently delayed plans to return some students to its schools on November 30. Teacher union leaders praised the decision, noting the city’s rising rate of transmission. But on social media, critics blamed the unions for—you guessed it—putting their wishes ahead of their students. Again, there are plenty of good arguments on both sides of this debate. But we won’t hear them if we presume that our opponents are selfish, stupid, or corrupt. Democracy requires us to believe that reasonable people can come to different conclusions about the same set of facts. And there’s only one institution that can teach future citizens that lesson: the American school.

Alas, the debate over education reflects the same hostile mentality that infects the rest of our politics. It’s my way or the highway. We can’t teach our children the spirit of civility that undergirds democracy if we’re violating it ourselves.

That’s where Gutmann could provide vital help. In sixteen books and hundreds of articles, Gutmann has explored the virtues of conversation and compromise. She’s the embodiment of Joe Biden’s talk of unity, and I hope his familiarity with Penn—which named its global-engagement center in Washington after him—means Gutmann’s name is really in play. Surely, we can promote neighborhood and charter schools, just as we can encourage higher teacher pay and higher academic standards. But none of that will happen if we assume the worst about each other.

It’s also unlikely to occur if you tip the scales towards one side. Since the Department of Education was created, no union leader has been named secretary. It’s a sensible norm worth keeping. But we also don’t want someone like Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, whose hardened views on charter schools and private school vouchers alienated big swaths of the education community.

Witness the flood of recrimination triggered by rumors that Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises is also under consideration for the post. Santelises has worked for Teach for America and is backed by Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter group, which makes her Kryptonite to the unions and other traditional-school advocates. One critic even compared her to Arne Duncan, Obama’s first education secretary, whose advocacy for accountability and charters caused so much consternation that the NEA called on him to resign in 2014.

We need an Education Secretary who can bring these two sides together, or at least try. Who better than someone who has spent her career studying and practicing dialogue across differences? After the 2016 elections, for example, Gutmann tapped Joe Biden and Jeb Bush as “practice professors” at Penn and hosted them for a forum about immigration, where they hammered out a compromise on one of America’s most polarizing issues.

I have no idea if Gutmann would even consider serving in Biden’s cabinet. But here’s what I do know: her country needs her more than Penn does. Especially our fraught public schools. Especially right now.

 

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.