School superintendent discusses Trump’s education pick

JULIE LANE PHOTO School Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik.
School Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik.

When Shelter Island Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik heard that billionaire Betsy DeVos was being tapped as Secretary of Education in the Trump Cabinet, he took a wait-and-see stance.

His one concern about Ms. DeVos is whether any policies she might advocate could cost his district money.

Ms. DeVos is a philanthropist and conservative activist who has been a strong advocate of so-called charter schools. According to the Washington Post, Ms. DeVos” has spent “millions of dollars in a successful push to expand voucher programs that give families taxpayer dollars to pay for private and religious schools.”

The intent of charter schools is to offer some programs not necessarily offered in public schools and create competition with the public schools based on the theory that competition would improve public education.

But the way in which it has played out, Mr. Skuggevik said, is that charter schools aren’t held to the same requirements public schools must meet making for an uneven playing field.

Charter school students, for instance, don’t have to take many of the tests required of public school students and aren’t held to the same standards, Mr. Skuggevik added.

Meanwhile, it’s public school budgets that are tapped to pay charter school tuition, books, materials and transportation for those students who opt for that educational model. Other fees include paying for the charter school’s nurse and other health care costs for those students attending charter school.

That cuts into the amount of money left to the public school district for its operations, the superintendent said, which adds up to “a ton of costs.”

“I don’t ever fear competition,” he said, “but if [Ms. DeVos] starts taking money away from public education, I have a problem,”

He isn’t ready to condemn Ms. DeVos and he’s not concerned that she has no experience as an educator. Other secretaries of education have been successful in the post although they weren’t educators, he said.

“She’s not John King,” Mr. Skuggevik, giving Ms. DeVos faint praise in his estimation. Mr. King is the current secretary of education, and previously was New York State’s commissioner of education.

“King wasn’t exactly good for New York,” Mr. Skuggevik added.

Prior to becoming state commissioner, Mr. King was open to discussing and exploring educational issues, Mr. Skuggevik said.

But once he became commissioner — even before the Common Core Curriculum was set in place — he stopped listening to educators and being receptive to their ideas, the superintendent said.

“I’m more about local control” of schools, the superintendent added. He doesn’t want officials in Albany or Washington handing down edicts when they’re in no position to judge what’s needed in this district.

The Common Core Curriculum and its related tests weren’t developed by educators, which is where the program went wrong, Mr. Skuggevik said. But recent changes in testing with questions relevant to what’s being taught holds promise, he noted, as do efforts to share specifics on scores with each district.

Testing is useless without feedback to local districts about where students need more help, he said.

The role of the United States Department of Education and, for that matter, the New York State Department of Education, should be limited to statistics, Mr. Skuggevik said, not policies regarding what should be taught and how it should be taught.

Tests that would be useful could be offered at the start and end of each school year to render a true picture of what has been learned as well as what gets lost during the long summer break, Mr. Skuggevik said.

While he monitors what his teachers are doing in their classrooms, he doesn’t presume to tell them how to teach, but rather has conversations with them about their methods.

Information has to come from teachers to administrators and not the other way around, the superintendent said, adding that the same is true about attempts by the state and federal governments to impose their philosophy on local districts,