Charter school advocates, San Diego NAACP raise objections to Biden’s pick for number two spot at Education Department
Linda Jacobson | January 26, 2021
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President Joe Biden’s nomination of Miguel Cardona for education secretary has been largely well received. But his choice for the number two spot at the department is prompting some objections from education interest groups.
Charter school leaders and some members of the Black community have sounded alarms over the nomination of Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, to be the department’s deputy secretary — a post that traditionally has not attracted controversy.
While Marten has an enthusiastic support base, advocates for charter schools said she has embraced the unions’ hard line against charter growth. “Cindy Marten is a curious pick for a deputy secretary of education nominee, given the Biden administration’s call for unity, racial equity and support for working families,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Like Cardona, she has K-12 classroom experience and has been hailed as a leader in closing achievement gaps. But while Cardona has expressed a more neutral position on charter schools, Marten hails from a state where charters and traditional schools frequently clash. She played a role in reaching a truce in that fight and has argued for judging charter schools based on their financial impact on traditional public schools. With confirmation proceedings for agency officials already underway, her views could lead to questions from Congress.
Charter advocates say they are most troubled by her alignment with the California Teachers Association. In 2018, she held a press conference to highlight a report from In the Public Interest, a think tank, which estimated that the San Diego district loses nearly $66 million a year when students enroll in charters. In the Public Interest is part of the Partnership for Working Families, a union-funded coalition of progressive organizations.
Jed Wallace, a former CEO of the California Charter Schools Association who now authors the CharterFolk blog, said it was surprising that a superintendent would tout a report that he called “a complete and utter hit job.”
He respects Marten as an educator. When interacting with her, he said, “It feels like she was in the classroom just yesterday.” San Diego, he added, was among the first districts in the state to include charter schools in a facilities bond issue, which contributed to a good relationship between charters and the district.
For Ian Pumpian, CEO of Health Sciences High School and Middle College, that relationship started 14 years ago when he showed up at Central Elementary School, where Marten was principal, to discuss how they could work together.
“She was genuinely intrigued to hear my thoughts on how charters could serve as R&D [research and development] for school districts and traditional schools,” he said. “To this day, Cindy and I discuss continuing to reinvent the types of collaborations that are possible between charters and traditional schools.”
But it was Marten’s participation on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s charter school task force in 2019 that Wallace said gives him “a deeper sense of concern than optimism.”
She argued in favor of districts being the primary authorizers of charters, limiting the ability to appeal denials and giving districts the right to deny applications based on lost student funding — all positions espoused by California’s teachers unions.
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“As someone who has had to balance a $1.3 billion budget every year, I can tell you this matters a lot,” she said on a radio program about the debate. She added that allowing county boards of education to overrule local school boards that deny a charter application “hurts students.”
The Biden administration had “a beautiful opportunity to not pick a fight,” said Margaret Fortune, who leads a network of nine charter schools in California serving mostly Black students and worked on the task force with Marten. She added that the administration has undone “whatever good will they accomplished through the Cardona nomination.”
The district defended Marten’s record, noting that four of the 78 charter schools up for renewal over the past seven years were not approved, and this year, five of the six up for renewal have been renewed.
Charter advocates aren’t the only ones who object to Marten’s nomination. In a statement, the NAACP San Diego Branch called Marten an “ineffective leader when it comes to the academic advancement of African American children in San Diego public schools.”
In the state, however, Marten is largely viewed as an effective superintendent, one who has made strides in addressing both achievement and discipline issues among Black students compared to similar large urban districts.
The Learning Policy Institute, for example, featured San Diego Unified in 2019 as one of seven “positive outlier” districts in which black, Latino and white students are earning higher-than-predicted English and math scores on state assessments, after considering socioeconomic status. Linda Darling-Hammond, who heads up the institute, led Biden’s transition team for education and is a friend and colleague of Marten’s.
On discipline, 2017 federal civil rights data showed that Black students accounted for over 20 percent of suspensions despite comprising only 8 percent of the district’s student population. But the suspension rate is the second lowest among large districts in the state, according to a study from San Diego State University and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The San Diego school board amended Marten’s contract in 2019 and extended it through 2023, but one member voted no, citing persistent problems with safety and academics at a predominantly Black and Hispanic high school. The district also has 14 schools on the state’s low-performing list.
Other members of the Black community spoke more positively about Marten’s nomination. Frank Jordan, a former NAACP leader in San Diego and at the state level said, “Just think, we’ll have someone from this area that knows the needs of a district.”
Marten’s district is not among those that have reopened schools since the onset of the pandemic — a goal for the Biden administration’s first 100 days. Marten is one of seven California superintendents to argue that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to begin reopening schools by Feb. 15 is unrealistic and lacks the funding needed for COVID-19 testing.