Now is the time to stand up for public education and reject President Trump’s disastrous “school choice” agenda.
President’s Trump’s devastating education policies are another step closer to reality. The administration’s recent budget announcement follows his appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and White House Education Adviser Rob Goad to lead the charge against public schools and marginalized students in favor of a deregulated and highly segmented system.
In her February Kappan column, “Choice for education secretary,” Maria Ferguson points out that DeVos, on her own, has only limited power to implement this agenda. Still, I remain deeply concerned. Given the unblinking support that DeVos receives from Congress and the executive branch, she could do a lot of damage.
The essence of America’s public education system can be found in its largely autonomous local school districts, which are controlled by elected boards and supported by the community’s self-determined taxing authority. For all its faults, this system has helped build a society that, for more than 100 years, has been the economic, political, and cultural envy of the world. By proposing to steer federal subsidies to the private sector, DeVos threatens to undermine this tradition of local public oversight and lay waste to the educational foundation of American exceptionalism.
Here’s how the Trump education budget would force local districts into a death spiral: The bulk of the $9 billion cut to the education department’s budget would be shifted away from states and districts, while charter and private schools would be enriched by special provisions that, according to the Office of Management and Budget, include, “a $168 million increase for charter schools, $250 million for a new private school choice program, and a $1 billion increase for Title I, dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting.”
If it proceeds, this effort to redirect federal education spending will have two main effects. First, it will force struggling districts to cut services, prompting many families to leave the public schools. Second, it will enrich the private education sector, creating an even greater incentive for parents — at least those with the means — to turn to the kinds of for-profit providers that DeVos championed in Michigan, which helped create a “deeply dysfunctional educational landscape,” according to the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press.
Who then will be left in these district schools? The poor, the disabled, those whose primary language is not English, the hard-to-teach, those whose religious preference doesn’t mesh with available sectarian options, and, yes, those whose race or ethnicity creates discomfort for private school families or administrators. For, to be clear, no one is proposing that private schools give up their right to decide which students they want to admit.
The result will be a deregulated retail market, flooded with schools pitched to every price point, religious preference, and political outlook, with little public accountability or quality control other than “buyer beware.” More than ever, the nation’s children will be segmented and segregated, divided among Creationist schools, Yiddish-only schools, Slavery-Wasn’t-That-Bad schools, Yes-It-Was schools, Upper Crust academies, K-12 versions of Trump University, and every other kind of “school” than can be imagined and sold to unsuspecting parents. Nor will hucksters pass up the opportunity to make a profit off the beleaguered public schools that remain; consider, for example, the disciplinary abuses documented at Camelot Schools a nationwide provider of discounted education services for troubled and underperforming students.
This, after all, is the fulfillment of school choice. Where once we relied upon the larger taxpaying public to support community schools that served the common good, now we are each expected to pursue our own, narrow private interests. Forget about leaving no child behind; if Trump’s education budget is approved by this Congress, our new slogan will be “devil take the hindmost.”
Eventually, Americans will become disgusted with the kinds of academic bottom-feeders that the president wishes to empower. In time, parents will awaken to the bill-of-goods sold by Trump and his profiteering accomplices. But that will be too late for students who’ve been preyed upon by educational rip-off artists, abandoned by schools that go bankrupt mid-year, or attended neighborhood schools that have been drained of funding.
Instead of waiting for the administration’s so-called school choice agenda to collapse under the weight of its own broken promises, it would be far better to head off this disaster from the start. Every local school board member should get on the phone to their congressional offices. So too should every parent and grandparent who is satisfied with their local schools. Today, our public K-12 system enrolls 50 million children — 90% of total school enrollment — in over 14,000 locally controlled districts. Yes, that system has many deficiencies. But now, while it is still robust, is not the time to turn our backs on it. The Trump alternative is a federalized road to nowhere.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 Phi Delta Kappan, 98 (8).
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