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Senate Confirms Reform Advocate Jim Blew in Narrow Vote, Rounding Out Ed Dept’s K-12 Team

By Carolyn Phenicie | July 17, 2018

Jim Blew (Student Success California)

The Senate voted narrowly Tuesday to confirm Jim Blew, a longtime education reform advocate, to be an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, rounding out the department’s K-12 team.

Senators voted 50-49 along party lines to confirm Blew as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development some 10 months after he was nominated. He was the fourth Education Department nominee to be confirmed with only Republican votes, including Secretary Betsy DeVos, Deputy Secretary Mitchell Zais, and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus. The latest confirmation reflects the deep partisan divide in Congress over President Trump, DeVos, and school choice.

Several less controversial nominees have been approved by voice vote, a general taking of ayes and nays that indicates no senator wanted to register individual opposition. Monday evening, senators voted 85-0 to confirm Scott Stump, an industry executive and former Colorado Community College System leader, as assistant secretary for career, technical, and adult education.

DeVos congratulated both men in a statement late Tuesday afternoon, noting Stump’s “overwhelming support” and saying of Blew, “After many months of waiting, I am glad to finally have Jim on our team. Through the many years I have known him, he has continually proven himself to be an objective and thoughtful voice for policies that are working to help meet students’ individual needs and prepare them for successful and meaningful lives and careers.”

Democrats’ opposition to Blew’s nomination focused on the same topic — primarily, private school choice — with which they have clashed with DeVos.

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Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said DeVos has continued to advocate the same policies on vouchers that the public rejected in its wide opposition to her confirmation, that she isn’t doing enough to hold states accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and that she has scaled back civil rights protections for students.

A tough assistant secretary is needed to stand up to DeVos — but that isn’t Blew, Murray said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“Given the actions and decisions by Secretary DeVos, it is very clear we need an independent voice in this position. Unfortunately, Mr. Blew has proven he is not up to that challenge,” Murray said.

Blew, who has worked in education policy for decades, is well qualified, GOP HELP Committee chairman Lamar Alexander said.

“Mr. Blew’s sin, with some of my friends on the other side, is that he’s in favor of giving low-income children a choice of a better school and in favor of public charter schools …. No one should be surprised that a Republican president would nominate such an assistant secretary of education,” Alexander said.

In fact, every Republican has nominated education secretaries and assistant secretaries who hold that belief, Alexander added.

No senator besides Alexander and Murray spoke on the floor about Blew’s nomination.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, on Twitter said Blew will be a “valuable and thoughtful presence” at the Education Department.

The Senate has not yet considered the nomination of Mark Schultz to be commissioner of the Rehabilitative Services Administration. By Tuesday, the Trump administration had yet to nominate anyone for assistant secretary of post-secondary education. Nominations for two other positions have not been put forward because they are slated to be eliminated under the department’s reorganization, which awaits congressional approval.

Blew was nominated last September. His confirmation hearing focused on vouchers, particularly civil rights protections for students with disabilities who use them, the same issue that plagued DeVos, a longtime private school choice advocate, throughout her contentious confirmation and first months in office.

In opening testimony at the November 2017 hearing, Blew said that although he focused his career at the state and local levels, the federal government has an important role to play in enforcing civil rights protections and aiding the education of low-income children and those with disabilities.

“I appreciate the confidence and support that President Trump and Secretary DeVos have placed in me and education reform with this nomination,” he said.

The pace of Cabinet-level confirmations has lagged across the Trump administration, particularly in the Education Department.

The administration was slow to offer names for Senate consideration. Senate Democrats, unable to block nominees on the floor, have drawn out the process by demanding confirmation hearings and forcing Senate leaders to use debate time considering the nominees.

At one point in late 2017, the Education Department had the highest percentage of positions yet to be nominated, and this spring it had among the fewest nominees confirmed.

Blew, who was educated in public schools in Los Angeles, has been serving as the acting secretary of the department’s office of innovation and improvement. He was director of Student Success California, an education reform advocacy organization affiliated with 50CAN (the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now), a national advocacy group. He is the former president of Students First, the national advocacy organization founded by former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Blew served for 11 years as director of K-12 reform investments for the Walton Family Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of charter schools. He has held advisory and governing roles for education reform organizations, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the American Federation for Children, which was founded by DeVos, and the Policy Innovators in Education Network.

He was part of the team that started one of Los Angeles’s first inner-city independent charter schools. Watts Learning Center celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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