Trump’s Education Policy Could Make an Extreme Shift
President-elect Trump ran for office as a businessman who would bring his acumen to bear on the operation of the government. As part of his plan to make government run more efficiently, Mr. Trump championed the idea of privatizing public schools and freeing the privatized schools from onerous regulations. In this way he would break up the “monopoly” of “government schools”. Given his campaign rhetoric, it is not surprising that Mr. Trump selected billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos supports vouchers and the privatization and deregulation of public schools and post-secondary institutions as well.
As one who cherishes public education and one who witnessed how they changed the lives of children from all walks of life during my 38 years as a teacher and administrator, I am deeply concerned about the damage Ms. DeVos could inflict on public schools. I am especially concerned because the education platforms of President-elect Trump and the Republican party are in alignment with Mr. DeVos’ thinking. Here are some areas where changes might occur in education policy in the coming months, changes that would help Mr. Trump, the Republican Party, and Ms. DeVos realize their goals:
- “Portablity” of K-12 federal funds: With Congress now under Republican control and Mr. Trump seeking funds to keep his promise of providing $20,000,000,000 “of existing federal dollars” to fund a new voucher program to give parents choice, there is speculation that Congress might re-open the debate on the use of federal funds. The Republican party, Mr. Trump, and Ms. DeVos would like to see federal money for low income and handicapped children “follow the child” to “whatever school” works best for them. In their minds those schools include religious and private schools that are not required to follow the same regulations as “government schools”. If that issue is re-opened, Ms. DeVos might have an opportunity to craft regulations that mirror the language in the Republican platform, which seeks a voucher-like program that could direct funds to schools that are not governed by school boards.
- “Flexibility” in the use of federal funds: The original intent of federal legislation in the 1960s was to supplement the funding of districts serving needy children. To ensure that the federal funds were spent in accordance with that intent, federal regulations govern the use of those funds. Many school boards, administrators, and state and federal politicians find these regulations as cumbersome and controlling. In the name of “flexibility”, Congress could empower States to use these funds any way they wished. Doing so, however, could have a dis-equalizing impact since there is no assurance States would use the funds to help schools serving children raised in poverty.
- Expansion of de-regulated for-profit post-secondary education: Given the President-elect’s experience in operating a for-profit post secondary university (sic), the Republican party’s advocacy for “new systems of learning to compete with traditional four-year schools”, and their platform calling for college accreditation to be “de-coupled from federal financing”, Ms. DeVos is likely to write regulations that facilitate the expansion of for-profit post-secondary schools. Those schools might include institutions like Mr. Trump’s University as well as on-line institutions that could take the place of traditional four-year colleges.
- A shift in the Department’s stance on social, civil rights issues: Over the past several years the United States Department of Education issued directives on issues like the disciplining of handicapped children, bullying, transgender rights, and athletic equity. Many of those directives are contrary to positions taken by Mr. Trump, Ms. DeVos, and the Republican Party. Some of the directives in place may be replaced or rescinded and others will be amended to reflect the philosophy of Ms. DeVos. Also, it is likely the Office of Civil rights will make different choices about the cases they pursue and will be likely to reach different conclusions when they do investigate a case.
These policy shifts will change public education in subtle and, in some cases, imperceptible ways. But as Mother Jones writer Dave Gilson notes in an article on Donald Trump’s views about public education, a subtle change in terminology can change public’s perception of schools over time: “In a 2002 speech at the Heritage Foundation, Dick DeVos (the husband of Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos) advocated a shift in how conservatives talk about America’s schools. “‘Public schools’ is such a misnomer today that I really hate to use it,” he said. “I’ve begun to use the word ‘government schools’ or ‘government-run schools’ to describe what we used to call public schools because it’s a better descriptor of what they are.” At the time, you might have been hard pressed to find a prominent Republican politician willing to use such a loaded term. Fourteen years later, the president-elect is talking about our “failing government schools.”
As Ms. DeVos takes over as Secretary of Education, I expect to hear frequent laments about “failing government schools”. I also expect to hear more about “giving parents and students more choices”, about States “needing more flexibility”, about the need to eliminate “regulations that strangle innovation”, and about the need for competition in public education the same way we have competition in the marketplace.
I sincerely hope I am wrong, but I do not expect to hear praise for the hard work of public school teachers, or praise for the long hours elected school boards commit to operating those “government” schools, or hear about the struggles many children face outside of the school and the efforts schools make to help children face those struggles. And I certainly don’t expect to hear that “fixing” the “failing schools” is a complicated problem that will require a coordinated effort by the community at large.
And finally, I don’t expect to hear that more money is needed to Make American Schools Great Again.