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Zaleski: North Dakota's chief teacher teaches DeVos

North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, never timid about education advocacy, had an opportunity a few days ago to educate the new U.S. secretary of education on the realities of the classroom. It's a long shot, but let's hope Betsy DeVos, who apparently is not versed in North Dakota-style public education, recognized a teachable moment.

Prior to taking the job as Donald Trump's Cabinet-level education secretary, DeVos made her reputation by undermining public schools, a characterization she denies, even as the public record confirms her anti-public education bias. Moreover, in interviews—the most recent on CBS's "60 Minutes" two weeks ago—her smiling ignorance of education policy and practice suggested all she was missing was the customary dunce cap.

In my reading of Baesler's five years in office, she has emerged as the most focused and most qualified state education official in the nation. With a pedigree steeped in student learning from classroom to school board to administration, she can call on a depth and breadth of experience that is rare among education leaders. Confident of her qualifications and mastery, she never hesitates to challenge legislators, teachers, school board members, academics or even DeVos when it's about public education priorities as they affect learning. That's a difficult menu at the North Dakota Legislature, where a few lawmakers—some sit on education committees—don't know their butts from their belt buckles about the needs of schools.

Baesler was at a Washington, D.C., state school officers conference where DeVos spoke about the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The secretary alleged states need to do more to innovate, and she didn't see states doing so under the act. Baesler bristled. She responded that the secretary overlooked "transformative initiatives" in North Dakota and elsewhere that cannot be effectively communicated in a regulatory document. She said the work in North Dakota is innovative and transformative because all education stakeholders participate. A federal act application, she said, cannot fully illustrate that success. She suggested the secretary visit North Dakota for a better understanding of the state's programs. Good idea. It can be a lesson in the secretary's essential continuing education.

Baesler couched her comments carefully. After all, she's an elected official who by law runs on a non-partisan ballot, but is aligned with the North Dakota Republican Party. The party wrote a "letter of support" when she was a candidate. That's what passes for "non-partisan." It's a laugh.

The party tie requires she tread lightly on the president's secretary of education. The pitchfork-and-torch gang of the Church of Trump might excommunicate Baesler if she disparaged the high priest and one of his chief priestesses.

Nevertheless, she did, but without rancor and within the context of her credentials as an informed and effective educator. Baesler is inheritor and steward of a heritage and tradition of public education that took root in North Dakota before statehood. On that foundation, she's helped public schools create systems for student learning and teacher performance that are models for the nation. DeVos should spend some quality time in Baesler's classroom.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at or (701) 241-5521.