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What it really means when Trump, DeVos and their allies refer to public schools as ‘government schools’

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, shown in 2017, refer to public schools as “government schools.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If you were listening to President Trump deliver his State of the Union address this month, you heard him refer to public schools as “government schools.” It was not the first time, and you can expect to hear it with increasing frequency from him, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and their allies as they push to increase programs that use public money for private and religious school education.

Trump and DeVos use the term most often with the adjective “failing” attached as a broad denunciation of the public school system, which advocates see as the nation’s most important civic institution. The president and education secretary say their goal is to provide families with the most education options even as they disparage the one that enrolls most of America’s schoolchildren and continues to get high marks from the public.

It isn’t entirely clear where “government schools” originated in this context. This term showed up in a 1929 encyclical from Pope Pius XI on Christian education in which he calls “unjust and unlawful” any “monopoly, educational or scholastic, which, physically or morally, forces families to make use of government schools, contrary to the dictates of their Christian conscience, or contrary even to their legitimate preferences.”

In 1954, a white Southern segregationist who opposed school desegregation used it, as did free-market economist Milton Friedman in 1955. In the mid-2010s, conservatives in Kansas invoked the term during a battle over public education funding. Now, Trump and DeVos use it as they push their No. 1 education priority: Getting Congress to pass a $5 billion tax credit program that would allow use of public money for children to attend private and religious school.

“Government schools” is invoked mostly by people who are suspicious of public institutions and see government as a problem rather than a solution. That sentiment was perhaps best encapsulated by President Ronald Reagan in an Aug. 12, 1986, speech in which he famously said, “'The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'”

In this line of thinking, schools should be operated like businesses because the private sector and competition always produce better results, which critics say is not supported by evidence. Many of the people who use the term “government schools” also oppose unions and have been antagonistic to the two major teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — and the right of public workers to bargain collectively.

Traditional public schools continue to enroll the vast majority of American schoolchildren despite the growing number of alternatives, and opinion polls shows the public still supports them despite serious problems in some districts. The latest and best-known poll on the subject, the 2019 PDK poll of the public’s attitudes on public schools, found that 76 percent of parents with children in kindergarten through 12th grade gave their own child’s school an A or B grade, even though just 19 percent of Americans overall gave the nation’s schools an A or B.

Trump has been saying “government schools” ever since he took office in 2017 to appeal to people who are suspicious of government. DeVos has been using the phrase even longer.

In her home state of Michigan, she and her husband, Amway heir Richard DeVos Jr., spent millions of dollars on an unsuccessful effort in the early 2000s to change the state constitution to allow school vouchers and successfully pushed for a law that would allow for charter schools to open there. The DeVoses have long supported Christian schools, too, and have donated millions of dollars to them over the years.

In 2015, DeVos made clear her position on traditional public schools: She called them “a dead end” during a speech at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin that year. She said:

“We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students.”

That speech is why the education world was stunned when Trump tapped DeVos to be education secretary, and why her confirmation became controversial: It was the first time that a Cabinet member was confirmed by the Senate only after the vice president, in this case Mike Pence, broke a tie vote.

In 2002, DeVos’s husband used the phrase “government schools” in a speech he gave at a conservative think tank about expanding school vouchers across the country. He offered a four-part strategy and encouraged choice advocates to stop using the term “public schools.” His comments offered one of the common rationales given by pro-choice supporters for a change in terminology:

“l’ve used the word public schools a fair bit [but] I am beginning to change my own terminology. I would encourage you to either improve on mine or adopt it. ‘Public schools’ is such a misnomer today that I really hate to use that. 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 in fact what they are. Because the public school creates this aura that if anyone walks in off the street into a quote unquote public school they would be welcome. And you and I both know that in America today, unfortunately, if you don’t live in the appropriate school district you are about as welcome in a particular public school as a virus is welcome on a cruise ship."

Traditional public schools are required to accept all students who live in their district or who have been assigned to them by lottery. Private and religious schools are not required to accept any students, and religious schools are allowed to legally discriminate against some students, such as LGBTQ students.

In any case, Richard DeVos also made clear that choice advocates should tread lightly, urging them to “be cautious about talking too much about these activities” so the issue is not “appropriated” and viewed as “only a conservative idea."

Betsy DeVos and her allies are trying to redefine ‘public education.' Critics call it ‘absurd.'

Three years before Richard DeVos’s speech, the term “government schools” was prominent in a 1999 school choice primer for "freedom in education” issued by the ultraconservative Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The center was founded with a big contribution from the DeVoses, and it hosted an event in 2013 at which Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and a prominent DeVos ally, said: “Our governance model includes over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.” He also said, “We can’t just outsource public education to bureaucracies and public education unions and hope for the best.”

Richard DeVos has had a long history, too, of opposing unions; he and his family were instrumental in the Michigan legislature passing a law eliminating union contracts between companies and labor unions that charge dues to members, making it a “right to work” state after it had long been union-friendly.

Interestingly, Friedman — the man many people credit with coining “government schools,” or at least the philosophy behind it — did not support right to work laws. Friedman, a Nobel laureate who advocated free markets, has been called the father of the school voucher movement because of a 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education.” In it, he argues government’s role should essentially be limited to paying for education, not operating schools. He wrote:

In terms of effects, the denationalization of education would widen the range of choice available to parents. Given, as at present, that parents can send their children to government schools without special payment, very few can or will send them to other schools unless they too are subsidized. Parochial schools are at a disadvantage in not getting any of the public funds devoted to education; but they have the compensating advantage of being run by institutions that are willing to subsidize them and can raise funds to do so, whereas there are few other sources of subsidies for schools. Let the subsidy be made available to parents regardless where they send their children — provided only that it be to schools that satisfy specified minimum standards — and a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand.

A year before that essay, Mississippi segregationist Tom P. Brady gave a speech (later expanded into a book) that became an informal manifesto for Southern segregationist leaders. In “Black Monday,” Brady wrote: “The public school is a socialized or politically monopolized institution, and suffers from weakness inherent in all monopolies."

According to Steve Suitts, an academic and author of the new book, “Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement”: “Southern segregationists used the term ‘government schools’ throughout the 1960s to discredit public schools. In 1964, for example, Mississippi white Citizens Council leader William Simmons condemned the monopoly of ‘government school systems.’ The Mississippi Citizens Council later worked to develop a private school system of choice, supported by vouchers, as their leaders condemned ‘government schools’ as ‘socialism in its purest form.’”

The phrase continued to be used by those opposing the system of common schools open to all and funded, operated and governed by the public through local governments.