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Philadelphia’s superintendent hasn’t been contacted about top education job

William Hite speaking into a microphone.
Philadelphia superintendent William Hite.
Emma Lee/WHYY

After his name appeared on a short list of preferred candidates for education secretary, Philadelphia superintendent William Hite said Thursday that he hasn’t been contacted about a cabinet post in a Biden administration.

“I haven’t had a lot of time to be thinking about that,” he said at a briefing with reporters. “I’m happy to be named as one of those individuals, but I haven’t had a lot of time to focus on it. And no, no one has reached out.”

Democrats for Education Reform, a group that was influential in shaping the education agenda of the Obama administration, sent an email to supporters last week with possible candidates for the country’s top education job, including Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson, head of Baltimore schools Sonja Brookins Santelises, and Hite. All three have teaching experience, have led major public school districts, and are Black.

Regardless of who ultimately leads the federal education department, Hite said Thursday that he believes Biden’s election means a welcome change in direction on several key issues. He hopes to see public schools get more federal aid to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The shift in administrations is “creating the opportunity to get more resources from the federal government to ensure safe environments for our children to return to,” he said.

Philadelphia, where school buildings are on average 70 years old, has been spending tens of millions of dollars to improve ventilation systems during the pandemic. The district also has been working to correct long-standing problems with asbestos, lead, and other environmental hazards, but there is lingering doubt among many parents and teachers over whether schools will be safe.

Hite also said he believed the move from Trump to Biden will benefit immigrant students, particularly those who have faced uncertain circumstances under the DACA, or Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, program.

“What the [incoming Biden] administration has talked about with respect to DACA is really important so that we don’t have families who...always think there is an opportunity to be rounded up and sent out of the country,” he said. “These are things we’re looking forward to in terms of urban education leaders across the country.”

In 2017, the Trump administration tried to end the DACA program, which protected young people, often called “dreamers,” who were brought to the U.S. as children and are undocumented. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the move in a 5-4 ruling.

Hite also said he would like to see someone with experience in public schools lead the federal education department. The current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a Michigan philanthropist and longtime advocate for school choice policies who was criticized for having little experience with public education. A polarizing figure, DeVos became a household name during the Trump administration.

On Thursday, Hite said that he was “disappointed” that a surge in coronavirus cases in Philadelphia has caused the district to postpone plans to begin some in-person learning for students in kindergarten through second grade on Nov. 30 and phase in some other students starting in January. He offered no predictions for when school buildings might reopen, and acknowledged that it is possible that students may not return at all this school year.

But even if the district could begin in-person learning in the spring for just a month or two, he would do so, Hite said.

“Any in-person learning is better than none at all,” he said.

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