May 18, 2022

scienceofedu

science of education

Former DeVos aide appointed Virginia’s deputy secretary of education

5 min read

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has appointed McKenzie Snow — a former Trump official and aide to one-time U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — as Virginia’s deputy secretary of education, the administration confirmed.

Snow began the role on Monday and will join state Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera on the governor’s Cabinet, overseeing instruction in Virginia from pre-kindergarten to higher education. 

Previously, she served as director of the Division of Learner Support for the New Hampshire Department of Education, supervising more than 110 employees and representing the agency to state legislators and local school administrators, according to Youngkin officials.

“The governor has built a team who have been leaders and change agents in their fields,” spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement. “McKenzie knows first-hand what it takes to build a best-in-class education system and we are thrilled to have McKenzie join the administration.”

McKenzie Snow, a former policy adviser for the Trump administration, was appointed as Virginia’s deputy secretary of education by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (Courtesy of the Youngkin administration)

Much of Snow’s work in education policy has centered on school choice. Before joining the Trump administration, she worked as policy director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a think tank formed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2008. In the role, she advocated for multiple initiatives aimed at expanding alternative education options, including increased funding for charter schools and education savings accounts.

Adopted by five states, savings account programs allow families to invest the state money appropriated for their children — known as per-pupil funding in Virginia — into accounts that can be used to pay for private school tuition and often other expenses, including transportation and textbooks. 

Establishing a similar program has been a long-time priority for some state legislators, but opponents argue there’s little accountability to ensure that funding is being used for educational purposes and that children are receiving a good education. Detractors also argue they funnel taxpayer money to private schools — often religious academies.

Snow also pushed for a federal tax-credit scholarship program, which would offer deductions to individuals and businesses who donated to programs offering private school scholarships to low-income students. In a 2017 policy paper co-authored with other analysts, she argued eligibility requirements for the programs should extend to families making three times the federal poverty level.

She continued advocating for tax credits after joining the Trump administration, first as a policy adviser to DeVos before taking over as K-12 Policy Director for the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020, she was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List for law and policy, which described Snow as spearheading the policy proposal for the administration.

Virginia has an existing tax credits program that’s also open to families making up to three times the federal poverty level (around $79,500 for a family of four). But the program is little-used, according to a 2021 report submitted to the House and Senate Finance Committees. Last year, eligible programs and private schools received just over $12.8 million in donations and offered a total of 4,674 scholarships. Thirty-seven percent of Virginia students are eligible, according to analysis by the think tank Ed Choice, but only 0.3 percent actually participate in the program statewide.

School choice has been a major initiative for Youngkin, who campaigned on the promise of opening 20 new charter schools across Virginia. Efforts this year were largely scuttled in the Senate’s Education and Health committee, but budget negotiators are still debating legislation that would allow more universities to open “laboratory schools” focused on innovative curriculum.

Currently, though, Democrats and Republicans are divided on how the schools should be overseen and funded. Senate Democrats are pushing for legislation that would require money for lab schools to be included in the state’s budget, though Republicans argue the schools could become self-sufficient through fundraising and a one-time allocation of $150 million pledged by Youngkin. 

The Senate proposal would also ensure that local public school divisions still receive funding for any student who moves to a lab school, while House Republicans are pushing for legislation that would transfer the state’s share of dollars to the lab school along with the student.

The debate over spending underscores continued partisanship over school choice issues in Virginia. Analysis from The Commonwealth Institute, a left-leaning think tank that advocates for low-income Virginians, ranks the state as 41st in the country when it comes to per-pupil funding. Education advocates and Democratic legislators have argued that charter and lab schools — as well as initiatives such as education savings accounts — would pull state dollars from already underfunded public schools.

Without a shadow of a doubt, they take money away, said James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, one of the states largest teachers unions. And then public schools are left being told to operate as if they had all the funds they were supposed to have. He described Snows appointment as another effort to undermine the states public schools, pointing to her support for voucher programs — another school choice initiative — as a research fellow for the Charles Koch Institute.

The Youngkin administration, though, highlighted Snow’s work on a range of state and federal initiatives, including overseeing the distribution of nearly $75 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding to states. Porter said she was also responsible for allocating millions of masks and rapid tests to local school divisions as a special assistant to Trump on the Domestic Policy Council.

She has significant expertise in multiple education areas, including instructional support, academics and assessment, special education, career and technical education, adult education, student wellness, and nutrition — all of which she recently led at the New Hampshire Department of Education, Porter said Monday.

In a statement released by the Youngkin administration, Deputy Commissioner Christine Brennan of the New Hampshire Department of Education said Snow had “worked to improve education opportunities for all students alongside families and educators” throughout her career. 

Some Virginia advocates, though, were concerned she stayed with the state for less than two years in a career that has included frequent position changes and no experience in the classroom, according to Snow’s official bios and LinkedIn page.

“I will say that I am alarmed by her lack of continuity in any of her roles thus far,” said Taikein Cooper, executive director of Virginia Excels. “I think what we need more than anything in education in the commonwealth right now is a bold vision. And we need people who are going to work with us to make sure that vision comes true.”