Joe Nathan column: What are Trump’s plans for Minnesota schools?

  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Print Friendly and PDF
Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota, will soon have a chance to ask several questions of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education.

That’s because Franken serves on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Marc Kimball, state director of communications for Franken, recently confirmed in a phone call that the committee will meet with DeVos as part of her confirmation process.

Here are several issues that I hope Franken will consider raising. You may want to suggest these or others.

–Promoting safety, respect and optimism among students.

If students are frightened, intimidated or bullied, they learn much less.

A recent national poll of more than 10,000 educators, conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that since the election: “Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact. A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families. Also on the upswing: verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language, and disturbing incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags.”

The SPLC acknowledged that this was not a scientific poll, noting that respondents were not a representative sample: “(Respondents) may have been more likely to perceive problems than those who did not.”

However, I agree with the SPLC’s conclusions: “The tremendous number of responses as well as the overwhelming confirmation of what has been anecdotally reported in the media cannot be ignored or dismissed.” More information about the poll can be found here:

–School choice – which Trump says he wants to expand to include private and parochial schools.

Minnesota offers lessons about choice, as we have within-district and cross-district schools, magnet schools, teacher-led schools, charter public schools, dual-credit programs (credit for high school and college) and tax credits. We’ve found that choice can promote widespread improvements – for example, districts added more dual-credit courses in response to Postsecondary Enrollment Options. But I think we’ve wisely avoided providing per-pupil funds to private and parochial K-12 schools.

–Educating students with some form of disability.

Congress requires that these students be served appropriately, but does not come close to providing the amount of funding that it originally promised. Will DeVos recommend an increase or other changes in these programs to make them more efficient?

–Other priorities for improving pre-K-12 schools.

There was little discussion during the campaign about K-12 education. Other than choice, what priorities does DeVos have?

–Postsecondary education.

Most jobs require a one- or two-year certificate or a four-year diploma. But many families are suffering from huge college debt. Completion and graduation rates are quite low at many institutions. College access, cost and quality urgently need more attention.

Learning from success.

The U.S. Department of Education honors many schools, but it could do much more to help educators and families learn from the most effective.

Betsy DeVos (Photo courtesy of Betsy DeVos)

Betsy DeVos

It’s worth noting that people disagree about DeVos. Dan Quisenberry, who I’ve known and respected for years, is president of the Michigan charter school association. He’s worked with DeVos and believes she is “a passionate education reformer (who) has high expectations for schools to perform academically and will hold all schools, including charters, accountable for results.” Others, including, for example, presidents of national teacher unions, have strongly criticized her.

DeVos has written: “I am committed to transforming our educational system into the best in the world. However, out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin the confirmation process.” (Read more from her at

Only about 10 percent of the funding for public schools comes from Congress. But that’s still more than $68 billion. Equally important, the head of the U.S. Department of Education can speak out on many issues. The department also can increase or decrease regulations on U.S. schools.

Fortunately, Franken can ask DeVos for details and encourage her to consider what’s happening in Minnesota.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].


5 Responses to Joe Nathan column: What are Trump’s plans for Minnesota schools?

  1. As you mentioned, supporting schools that help students with disabilities is very important. Currently Linwood Monroe Arts Plus (LMAP) is the only public, arts education pre-K to 8 school in Saint Paul, serving 67% students of color, 67% low-income students, 17% students with disabilities, and 38% ELL students, and most of our students come from outside the neighborhood and we are seeking to update our facilities to bring G them into the 21st century.

    The vast majority of the project is about bringing LMAP up to code as mandated by the American with Disabilities Act passed 25 years ago. With 17% of the children with disabilities and the school classified as a DCD school, it is not adequate to simply assume that the fact that children have the opportunity to get on a bus, go to a wonderful school like LMAP, that they are not being isolated or reminded of their disabilities. Whether it is having only one accessible bathroom in the entire school to no bathroom in the nurses station that presses staff to put a sheet in between offices to give the child some privacy, those updates are not just necessary, they will help our children retain their dignity.

    Despite the progress we have made as a society, we still live in a world that the rights of children with disabilities, children of color, low income children and new American children are not always protects and respected. This project has the ability to do just that, give our children a much deserved 21st century school.


    • Joe Nathan says:

      It’s always valuable to receive feedback from readers. But before signing the petition that is mentioned, I urge folks to read the comment below from Nancy Wagner. I agree with her.

  2. Nancy Wagner says:

    Great article, Joe, and good questions.

    I would add this one: how will DeVos approach equity in school buildings AND campuses?

    For example, the LMAP school above does need improvements – no one debates that. But the petition above promotes an expansion beyond what improvements are needed, nearly doubling the building’s size on what is the smallest acreage site of St. Paul Public School. Right now, it is a small school on a small lot with a small playground. If Ms. LaMotte’s proposal moves forward, it would be a medium school on a small lot with a tiny playground.

    Equity needs to extend beyond the building- it should apply to the playground, too. Condemning generations of this school’s kids to a playground that does not meet state guidelines is short-sighted and irresponsible (and blatently unfair, when the local majority white schools has acreage to spare). These Title I school kids deserve the minimum playground and field space that every other kid in St. Paul Public Schools has.

  3. Dennis Doyle says:

    These are excellent questions that Mr. Nathan raises and it will be interesting to see if they are asked of the secretary-designate by Senator Franken and if so, how Ms. DeVos will respond.

  4. Lisa Roulet says:

    Thanks for your dedication to sharing important education information with our community. As the mom of two girls attending school here in Minnesota, quality education is very important to me and your column inspired me to come up with additional topics that may be of interest for the confirmation hearing for the Education Secretary nominee:

    1. There appears to be significant pressure for schools to reduce the achievement gap. Unfortunately, there are two ways to reduce an achievement gap: raise the floor or hold back the ceiling. It appears that some schools are implementing policies that hold back the achievement ceiling. Do you think it is important to focus on reducing the achievement gap or do you think it is preferable to focus on raising both the achievement floor and the achievement ceiling?

    2. Poor behavior is a big problem in some schools. At all grade levels, some students have not mastered the skills of staying seated, remaining quiet, and refraining from provoking fellow students, and in some schools this is a major detriment to learning. To what extent do you think it is tolerable for students to have their education and physical well-being suffer from the poor behavior of other students? Are you in favor of assigning students to classrooms based on behavior to minimize the disruption to students who follow class rules?

    3. Cell phone towers are sometimes located extremely close to schools. In a five mile radius from my home, there are at least three cell phone towers located next to schools. For two of the three schools, the cell phone towers are located very close to the playground.

    Recent studies have linked cell phone and other radiofrequency radiation to malignant brain and heart tumors. For example:

    • The World Health Organization classified cell phone and other radiofrequency radiation as a Group 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans) in 2011 based on increased rates of malignant brain cancer associated with cell phone use.

    • In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised that children minimize exposure to cell phone radiation based on human and animal studies that reflect a significant increase in cancer rates linked to the radiofrequency radiation emitted by cell phones.

    • In 2016, the U.S. National Toxicology Program study found that exposure to radiofrequency radiation significantly increased the rates of heart and brain cancer in rodents. The toxicologist who led the NTP study, Ronald Melnick, PhD, advises, “For children cancer risks may be greater than that for adults because of greater penetration and absorption of cellphone radiation in the brains of children and because the developing nervous system of children is more susceptible to tissue-damaging agents.”

    Given the potential health risks of cell phone and other radiofrequency radiation to children, are you in favor of minimizing the exposure of students to radiation from cell phone towers and other sources of radiofrequency radiation? If so, what do you propose?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Purchase Photos

menards flyer promo