WASHINGTON (CN) – Frank Brogan, President Donald Trump’s pick to serve as assistant secretary at the Department of Education, would be a welcome check to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Senate Democrats said Thursday.
Brogan, who was Florida’s lieutenant governor under Gov. Jeb Bush, was also the Sunshine State’s education chief in the mid-to-late 1990s, and has been a teacher, school principal and district superintendent.
While serving in Florida’s top education post, Brogan both championed higher academic standards and the use of tax dollars for private schools.
Unlike DeVos’ confirmation hearing, which dragged on for hours as Democrats grilled her lack of education experience, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee’s vetting of Brogan was a far smoother affair.
The most pointed questioning came from Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., who pressed Brogan for his take on DeVos’ appearing to “rubber-stamp” approvals for schools claiming they meet full criteria to receive funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
“Since [ESSA] has passed and is beginning to be implemented, I am very concerned the Department of Education is approving plans that don’t comply with all of ESSA’s federal guardrails,” Murray said.
The legislation, passed in 2015, was intended to protect poor school students and ensure they receive federal funding for their programs. It also replaced provisions found in the No Child Left Behind Act that gave states the power to choose how much weight they give federally mandated tests when evaluating their schools.
Since DeVos was confirmed last year, the Education Department has approved ESSA for 33 states, including Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Senator Murray told Brogan she worried the department was approving plans that would allow schools to obtain the highest possible state ratings, even if students were slipping through the cracks, particularly minority students and those with disabilities.
Senator Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said she shared Murray’s concerns, telling Brogan she believes the Education Department has also been inconsistent in its use of a so-called “super subgroup” application under ESSA.
By identifying so-called “super subgroups,” schools can combine groups of students, like those who primarily speak English as a second language, disabled students or minority students into a single category, effectively masking achievement levels, Hassan argued.
Brogan agreed there was some potential for abuse if the program is not closely monitored, but he would not say whether or not he would ban super subgroups.
“I’m working under the absolute belief that the [approved plans] were compliant with the law,” he said.
But Brogan added that if or until he is confirmed, his ability to comment specifically on the department and its programs would be somewhat limited.
Senators also pushed Brogan for his opinion on restraint-and-seclusion techniques used for special needs students. According to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, these particular methods, are not always implemented effectively, Sen. Hassan said.
“How would you address this?” she asked.
“One of the greatest things we can do is recognize why restraint may be necessary, but at the same time work with faculty to examine restraint and seclusion and if possible, reduce its use,” Brogan said.
The committee’s chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., rebuffed critiques over DeVos’ first year at the helm of the Education Department , adding the secretary expressed interest in meeting with members of the committee to discuss ESSA and other programs.
That meeting will be scheduled in the near future, the Republican senator said.
The invitation was also extended to Brogan, if confirmed, he added.
Senator Doug Jones, Alabama’s new Democratic lawmaker, noted Brogan’s history of support for vouchers. When misused, they can be used as a way to maintain segregation in schools, he said.
“I don’t want those kinds of schools to get federal money,” Jones added.
Brogan offered his reassurance.
“I have no interest in privatizing the public education system which serves obviously the lion’s share of children today,” he said.