Education Secretary Dan French is not the most inspiring sort of leader. If anything, he’s kind of just there. His facial expression and vocal affect are persistently flat. He tends to say nothing with a maximum amount of verbal camouflage. When he’s reading a prepared statement, his eyes rarely stray from the page. And when they do stray, it’s a brief upward glance and then right back down.
Which probably makes him the perfect education secretary for Gov. Phil Scott, who’s also fond of laying down large swaths of verbal camouflage and, well, doesn’t seem to care that much about the public schools except they should somehow operate more cheaply.
In the past couple weeks, French’s persona has not served him well in the public sphere. Although again, his boss is probably just fine with his performance.
At the October 5 Covid briefing, French mentioned in passing that he’d made a visit to the Canaan school district the previous day. It only occurred to me later that (a) Canaan is the only district in Vermont without a mask mandate and (b) Canaan is French’s old stomping grounds. It was there he rose from teacher to superintendent before moving on to bigger things.
That Canaan meeting was apparently not recorded. Or if it was, the recording has not been made available. That’s a shame, because I’d really like to know what he said about the advisability of masking.
Especially since, as someone who viewed the meeting told me, French did not wear a mask himself.
Apparently, there were very few masks to be seen among attendees or school officials. But what kind of example was the barefaced French offering? I mean, the governor has resisted calls for a statewide school masking order because every district but one mandates masks on their own — so we already have virtually universal masking in the schools without a state order. Except Canaan, of course.
You’d think Scott would want Canaan to get on board and that French would have brought that message to his old district, but I doubt it. He’s not a confrontational sort. For that matter, he’s not exactly a force for change. He’s more of a go-along, get-along kind of guy. That’s how he looks and speaks in public, and that’s the policy profile of the agency under his, um, leadership.
Take, for example, his acknowledgment that the administration’s Covid policies are putting a huge amount of strain on school personnel even as he repeatedly shoots down any notion that his agency or the state might lift a finger to help. “Everyone’s going to need to chip in” is the sum total of his wisdom for already overworked school staffers.
And then we get to recent incidents of harassment and hate speech at high school sports events. First there was Winooski, then came Burlington, and then Hartford, all within a few days’ time. The heart and soul of French’s response? “I think these types of incidents, unfortunately, need to be addressed.” “Unfortunately” as in “It’s a shame that these incidents are happening”, or as in “Well, I guess I might have to put in some work”?
Otherwise, he bumbled and stumbled for a few minutes without making any commitment to do anything or even take any position. Here, in all its glory, was what he had to say at the October 5 Covid briefing when asked if the state should assume an oversight role for high school athletics:
I think these types of issues, unfortunately, need to be addressed. I’m not 100% sold on that being the perfect solution ‘cause I think we have these issues, unfortunately, typically hate speech and racism that are, sounds like in the case of Winooski, have been there quite some time which, frankly, is equally as disturbing as the specific incident. But I think, you know, all the adults involved need to take their responsibility for the, to do what they need to do and it is concerning to me that referees are not acting or if the games are not receiving proper oversight, that’s something we should take a look at for sure. But I’d have to see the specific solution before I suggest that’s an improvement.
Congratulations to anyone who slogged through that mess.
To be fair to French, his comments came before the Burlington and Hartford events had been publicly reported so the trend had yet to raise its ugly head. Of course, if his agency had taken any responsibility whatsoever on this issue, he would have been fully informed in advance of bad publicity.
Also to be fair to French, there ain’t nobody in this story who’s covered themselves with glory. It’s a classic hot-potato situation. The Vermont Principals’ Association, which oversees high school athletics, doesn’t have a process for investigating such incidents and shows no interest in establishing one. Instead they leave it up to individual schools, which seem to have little capacity and/or appetite for the task. And French’s non-position is virtually identical to Scott’s. In answer to the same question at the same presser, the governor laid down a thick, concealing cloud of gabble and then… punted it away.
This is a topic that the Legislature could get involved in along with many other thorny topics. But this is something that they could get involved and insert themselves if they thought that it was something that would be needed.
Now, that’s leadership! Let somebody else take on the “thorny topics.”
So. If French is an undynamic, uninspiring devotee of not doing anything or having any ideas, then it looks like Scott hired the best person to carry out his education policies. Because ignoring problems in public education (cost aside) is par for the course in this administration.