Jason Botel, KIPP school founder and education advocate, said to become White House adviser

Politico reports Jason Botel named to White House education position.

Jason Botel, a Maryland education advocate and founder of a well-regarded city charter school, is expected to be named a senior White House adviser on education.

Politico first reported the news Tuesday night, and said Wednesday that Botel would be working with the interim secretary of education to lead a group of 18 new Department of Education staffers.

A source close to Botel told The Baltimore Sun that Botel has accepted the post. Botel did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Botel began his career as a Teach for America teacher in the Baltimore public schools and went on to found KIPP Ujima Village Academy, an academically rigorous charter school in West Baltimore.

He was most recently executive director of the education advocacy group MarylandCAN. His name has been removed from the MarylandCAN website, and an automatic email reply says he no longer works there.

"It is a loss to Maryland, but a plus for the country," said Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation. "He's extremely knowledgeable and very competent.

"Unlike the secretary of education [nominee], he has actually worked in the trenches."

Betsy DeVos, President Donald J. Trump's choice for secretary of education, has not attended or worked in public schools.

DeVos is a strong advocate for school vouchers and charter schools, and has invested millions of dollars of her own money to encourage the expansion of charters in Michigan.

At her confirmation hearing this month, DeVos told senators she wanted to give low-income students the same school choices as their wealthier counterparts.

Democrats say she wants to privatize education and give public money to religious schools.

Critics of Trump and DeVos found it surprising that Botel, who is viewed as a progressive, would take the job. He has written of his support for Black Lives Matter, a movement that has criticized Trump.

State school board member Laura Weeldreyer said she was "certainly a little surprised" that Botel accepted the position, but added he is deeply committed to the charter school movement.

"I think that charter schools and school choice have always made strange bedfellows," Weeldreyer said. "It is a movement that appeals to the most conservative and the most progressive."

Botel's public charter school background would "complement" that of DeVos, said Marc Porter Magee, CEO and founder of 50CAN, the national umbrella over MarylandCAN and other state groups.

"What they clearly share is a passion for providing great opportunities for kids," Magee said. "That is the spirit Jason brought to his work, to do everything to help kids especially those trapped in failing schools."

Magee called the appointment of Botel for a senior role "a very hopeful sign for the direction the administration is going in.

"I can't think of anyone I trust more to be in the room when important decisions are being made that affect American schoolchildren," he said.

Botel began his education career at Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore in 1997. He taught there for three years.

Other teachers at the school during his tenure included Weeldreyer and Alec Ross, who went on to become a senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"I've been in touch with him for the last 20 years," said Ross. "I know from first-hand experience that he's going into a position where he will have a very substantial amount of power. It's going to be interesting to see what he does with it."

Botel left teaching for training by the Knowledge is Power Program to start a KIPP school. He returned to Baltimore in 2002 and spent months building the middle school from scratch. He walked neighborhoods in West Baltimore knocking on doors convincing parents to trust him enough to send their children to his new school.

Students at KIPP— known for its strict discipline and rigorous program — achieved scores above the state average and had some of the highest math scores in the city while he was principal.

Andres Alonso, the former Baltimore schools CEO, praised Botel's appointment.

"Jason is very smart, understands the management of schools, and had great practical sense when I knew him," he said. "It is a good thing if someone with those gifts is part of any mix that has power over the future of schools.

"I think knowing a field matters tremendously, and he will be needed."

Democrats have criticized DeVos for her lack of familiarity during her confirmation hearing with the law that governs special education and the debate in education circles between proficiency and growth as measures of student achievement.

Richard Barth, CEO of the 200-school KIPP Foundation, noted Botel's success in Baltimore.

"Under his leadership, KIPP Ujima Village became one of the city's highest-performing public schools," he said in a statement. "Jason has a strong track record of leadership and bipartisan coalition-building. We are confident that he will bring a focus on children, quality and accountability to his work with the White House."

When KIPP added an elementary school in Baltimore, Botel left his job as principal of the middle school to oversee the KIPP organization in Baltimore for 11 years.

Botel joined MarylandCAN in 2013 and worked to highlight "opportunity schools," where low-income and minority students performed well.

He often commented on state education policy, and remained committed to helping charter schools.

Will McKenna, executive director of the nonprofit that oversees Afya Public Charter School in Baltimore, said he was "surprised when I first heard the news."

"I didn't think Jason was a big Trump supporter," McKenna said. "But I know he cares deeply about quality schools of all kinds, including charters, and this is a great opportunity for him. So good for him."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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