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Two former education secretaries under Republican and Democratic presidents are taking prominent roles in talks with stakeholders around the country on how to safely return children to school in the fall.

Why it matters: Margaret Spellings' and Arne Duncan's engagement stands in contrast to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' lack of visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — and what some educational leaders say is a vacuum of federal leadership at a time when schools need help.

  • The added injustices of racial and economic disparities across the country have further exacerbated the challenges facing education leaders.

Between the lines: Spellings, who was education secretary under George W. Bush, and Duncan, who served under Barack Obama, are becoming more active at a time when DeVos has been operating in the shadows.

  • Duncan tells Axios that he sees a "lack of leadership coming from D.C." that's "delaying us getting to a better place" and "that's why many of us are trying to step into the leadership void and work with people who are doing the real work at the state and local level." [Watch a clip here]
  • "Is there a need for much better, much more honest, much more empathetic, much more competent leadership at the national level? Yes," Duncan added.
  • Spellings said that "people are starving for, hungry for, guidance, for support, for help, for expertise," and that "DeVos has not had as high a profile as some of the others of us. And that's been consistently true during her service . . . I think people want to see her."

Much of what DeVos has drawn attention for since the pandemic began — including on Title IX (creating a narrower definition of sexual harassment) and issuing policy requiring public schools to share federal relief funding with private schools regardless of income — has been divisive inside education circles.

  • DeVos declined an interview request. In an email statement to Axios, spokeswoman Angela Morabito said that “Secretary DeVos hasn’t stepped back — she’s stepped up,” and that Spellings and Duncan oversaw “Washington-knows-best, federal control of education that resulted in total failure, so the Secretary won’t be taking cues from them.”
  • Morabito also said that the publication of the new Title IX rule "should come as no surprise," and that "civil rights are not on hold during this pandemic."
  • DeVos’ office also provided Axios with a five-page document listing initial coronavirus funding for schools and a list of calls DeVos has made since the pandemic began. The list includes calls to 16 governors and 51 state education commissioners and school superintendents.

What they're saying: Spellings and Duncan tell Axios that families and children are facing unprecedented strains on their lives, as parents juggle their jobs and at-home learning.

One of their biggest concerns is how the digital and economic divides in our country, particularly in minority communities, are leaving thousands of children behind.

  • "We have to have high-speed broadband, 5G, broadband, all over this country, and we don't now," Spellings said. "That's a huge thing we need to fix, not only for education, but for telemedicine, too."
  • Duncan said the crisis "has slapped us in the face. And the massive inequities in education opportunities — we can't hide from them anymore and can't sweep them under the rug. At the top of the list for me is the digital divide."

The former secretaries also emphasized that schools are about so much more than what happens in the classroom. For many kids, schools may be an escape from dangers at home and a place where they're guaranteed a meal.

The two leaders have been in regular contact with school administrators around the country — and with one another — sharing their expertise and convening educators for a more coordinated approach to tackling reopening.

  • Duncan leads a call every week with superintendents, in addition to leading education forums. He's also been helping distribute meals to underserved families.
  • Spellings, the former president of the University of North Carolina, regularly talks with college presidents about the impact of COVID-19 on higher-education. She's also the CEO of Texas 2036, a nonprofit group focused on making state-focused policy decisions based on long-term, data-driven planning.

They also regularly stay in touch with other former education secretaries. Spellings and Duncan tell Axios that DeVos has not reached out to them for advice.

  • "It's a small club," Duncan said. "Secretary Spellings, Secretary [Rod] Paige, Secretary [Richard] Riley — I talk to those guys all the time. ... but the current secretary of education has never reached out. Not once. She's just not interested." [Clip here]

What's still needed: Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, tells Axios that schools need more money — and much more specific and consistent guidelines beyond "the very broad ones" put out by the CDC for how to reopen safely.

  • “Arne and Margaret are basically putting out guidance out for [DeVos],” Weingarten said.
  • "There's three national crises that are going on: a pandemic, a recession and systemic racism. All of these things are going to show up in the anxiety that kids have when they walk through the doors in September."

Go deeper

Trump says he will sign executive order on "patriotic education" in rebuke of 1619 project

President Trump speaks at the National Archives on Sept. 17. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump said he would sign an executive order on Thursday to "promote patriotic education" through an effort called the 1776 Commission, while denouncing a New York Times' project that investigated the impacts of racial injustice for Black Americans.

The big picture: The 1619 project dug into the personal histories of Black Americans in the U.S. who have faced present-day systematic inequality in housing and farming, as well as how the legacy of slavery altered health care access for Black Americans and fueled the country's early economy.

U.S. ambassador to Russia will return home briefly: State Department

John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, during a briefing in Moscow in 2015. Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

The State Department said Monday that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, will now be returning to the United States this week before returning to Moscow "in the coming weeks."

Why this matters: The statement, from a State Department spokesperson, comes just hours after Axios reported that Sullivan had indicated he intended to stand his ground and stay in Russia after the Kremlin “advised” him to return home to talk with his team.

Scoop: Leaked Ukraine memo reveals scope of Russia's aggression

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a military exposition in Sevastopol, Crimea, in Jan. 2020. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia has been holding last-minute military exercises near commercial shipping lanes in the Black Sea that threaten to strangle Ukraine's economy, according to an internal document from Ukraine's ministry of defense reviewed by Axios.

Why it matters: With the eyes of the world on the massive buildup of troops in eastern Ukraine, the leaked memo shows Russian forces escalating their presence on all sides of the Ukrainian border.