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Sonja Santelises has earned praise running Baltimore schools. Will she be Joe Biden’s cabinet pick?

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises, top, observes first grader Kashiff Albert, center, during a 2019 visit to Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary. Advocacy groups are promoting Santelises to become President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education.
Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises, top, observes first grader Kashiff Albert, center, during a 2019 visit to Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary. Advocacy groups are promoting Santelises to become President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

A national education group is pushing Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises as one of its top choices to lead President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education.

Democrats for Education Reform has proposed people who have experience and success in running an urban school system, as well as those who support testing and charter schools. That organization and other Santelises supporters see her as an educational leader who has garnered national name recognition and growing respect for her work in improving the city’s school system.

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She has taken a new approach to improving schools by focusing on what kids are learning in the classroom since she began in July 2016. She delved into the curriculum, found it lacking and has revamped it to require students gain knowledge not just skills. She’s also ramped up advanced classes, and provided more mental health and extracurricular activities for students.

The result has been a significant rise in test scores that has not been seen in more than a decade.

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Very little is known about what the Biden administration will be looking for in its education secretary, but he has said he would appoint someone with teaching experience, which would be a departure from current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Few candidates seem to have drawn as much attention — and debate — as Santelises who recently has been the focus of a war of words on Twitter between those on different ends of the education policy spectrum.

After Democrats for Education Reform’s endorsement, progressives who dislike school testing and charter schools and are more aligned with the teachers unions, took aim at Santelises.

Diane Ravitch, a longtime, progressive education advocate in New York, tweeted: “No, DFER we do not need a former [Teach For America], former [Education Trust]-er supe like Sonja Brookins Santelises whose kids went to charter & private schools. We need a public school advocate as Secretary of Education with a new vision who believes in public ed.”

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Santelises was a Teach For America administrator in New York City, worked for the Education Trust for three years before becoming Baltimore school’s CEO and sends two of her children to a city charter school and a third to a private school.

She also is a member of Chiefs for Change, a superintendent organization created by former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. In addition, her relationship with the Baltimore Teachers Union, which has spoken out vehemently against her attempt to open schools during the pandemic, hasn’t been warm.

Ravitch’s tweet was followed by a blog post Thursday by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, who said the slate of candidates Democrats for Education Reform is putting forward support “ineffective” education policies, particularly those supporting charter schools and privatization.

Many educators rushed to defend Santelises on Twitter under the hashtag: #IStandWithSonja. One of them was Baltimore activist DeRay McKesson, who worked in the city schools under Santelises and praised her management.

“I would follow her leadership anywhere. We would all benefit if she were the Secretary of Education,” McKesson tweeted.

The feud is less about Santelises than it is an illustration of the Democratic divisions on where education policy should be headed in the new administration, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy organization.

“It is not simply progressives versus the moderates” he said. “You have the reformers versus the unions.”

Santelises spent three years as a vice president at Education Trust, an organization with an “untouchable” reputation, Petrilli said.

“They have so much credibility on civil rights and equity, that it is remarkable they are being attacked by the left,” he said.

Petrilli also thinks the critics don’t know Santelises, who he said is widely respected across the ideological spectrum.

Biden, whose campaign stayed away from Twitter in general, might not care about the online dust up, so Petrilli isn’t sure that it would hurt her chances of getting the job.

On Thursday, Denver-based education consultant, Dale Chu wrote a piece elevating Santelises as his pick. Chu said he doesn’t know Santelises personally, but she offers Biden just the kind of person who can bridge the divide between the different camps because he sees Santelises as more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. She’s far from an ardent supporter of charters, he wrote, but rather someone who wants all schools to thrive.

“The fights are bigger and broader than Sonja,” he said.

Her experience revamping curriculum is a reform that has not been tried broadly, he said. In addition, she has guided a school district through the last eight months of a pandemic and would arrive at a time when such experience is needed.

In Baltimore, education leaders like Strong Schools Maryland’s Joe Francaviglia said the city needs Santelises, but so does the country.

“I have never once questioned her deep belief in every student being able to learn and her deep belief in what public education means to the community,” he said, even when he has disagreed with her decisions.

When he was a second year teacher, Francaviglia said Santelises, then the chief academic officer, visited his classroom. She stayed in the back watching for about 30 minutes. Later, she asked him a question no one else asked him during his six years in the school system: What could the system do to keep him?

Santelises has said she would not leave Baltimore for another superintendent’s job. She signed a new four-year contract with the board last July and was expected to stay until 2024.

During the whole debate, Santelises has remained silent. In an interview last week on Zoom, Santelises held up her hands in a gesture suggesting a question. Then she said she had no comment.

Some education advocates suggest the next education secretary could come from higher education, rather than the public schools. In that regard, another Marylander — UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski — has been mentioned as well.

But in an interview, Hrabowski said he is committed to staying at the university that has been his life’s work.

“Read my lips: Absolutely not,” he said. “I have no interest.”

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