There’s a reason that people who care about public education in the United States are mightily worried about President-elect Donald Trump. There are, actually, a number of reasons — all of which lead to this question: Will Trump’s administration destroy U.S. public education?
The short answer is that he can’t all by himself destroy America’s most important civic institution, at least not without help from Congress as well as state and local legislatures and governors.
State and local governmental entities provide most of K-12 public school funding. And there is no appetite in the country for intense federal involvement in local education, which occurred during the Obama administration at such an unprecedented level that Congress rewrote the No Child Left Behind law — eight years late — so that a great deal of education policymaking power could be sent back to the states.
But the more complicated response is that if he pushes the education policies that he espoused during the campaign — especially for more “choice,” such as voucher programs in which public money is used for private school tuition — he can drive the privatization of public schools with unprecedented speed, furthering the movement that has been growing under former president George W. Bush and then President Obama. Some public systems are already threatened — and nobody knows what the tipping point for many others could be.
He can do this through funding and regulation, and by selecting an education secretary who supports privatization, which he is expected to do. In fact, Education Week reported that Gerard Robinson, a member of Trump’s education transition team, said that Trump would seek to implement “a new way of how to deliver public education” — a statement giving some public education advocates panic attacks. It is likely sobering as well to Obama administration officials who could see some of their efforts toward educational equity reversed.
Trump said he would take $20 billion in federal funding — though he didn’t make clear where he would get it — to establish block grants that states can use to help children in low-income families enroll at private and charter schools. In a somewhat mixed message, he said that although states would be able to use the money as they see fit, he would push them to use it for school choice. And the names of potential candidates for education secretary that have been floated by Trump’s team are avid choice and privatization supporters, including Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Williamson Evers and Kevin Chavous.
That many people are worried that Trump could deliver a fatal blow to public schools speaks not only to his views and those of the people around him, but also to the past 15 years of school reform and the consequences of the policies promoted by former Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and waivers to NCLB.
Corporate school reform has led to standardized test-based “accountability” as well as school “choice” programs — pushed in part by billionaires who have made school reform a pet project — that are fueling the privatization of public education. Not all choice supporters agree on every topic — Obama and many Democrats oppose vouchers but support charters, while Republicans are big supporters of voucher and voucherlike programs — but the trajectory of increased privatization in recent years is undeniable under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The growth of charter schools has drained many traditional public school systems where charters are located, and the charter sectors in a number of states — especially the for-profit charters — are severely troubled because of lack of sufficient oversight. The charter movement is itself divided over how far to grow and what students should be the focus; for some 25 years charters were promoted to help students out of failing schools, but increasingly some supporters believe all public school students should have an opportunity to enroll in a charter.
Voucher or tax-credit programs that work in similar ways exist in nearly 30 states — and Trump could try to provide incentives for more states to adopt them in the same way that Obama pushed charters through Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion competition in which states vied for federal education funds by promising to adopt reforms the president wanted. Vouchers have failed to bridge the achievement gap in any place they have been adopted, including in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, the country’s longest-running voucher program, which critics say has siphoned resources from traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of America’s students.
The irony of all of this is that just as Trump is selecting an education secretary from a pool of pro-privatization candidates, voters in a number of states just expressed deep misgivings about unrestricted growth of school choice.
In pro-Clinton Massachusetts, voters rejected Question 2, a referendum that sought to lift the state’s cap on charter school growth. Even charter school supporters thought the referendum went too far and that unfettered growth of charters would dramatically harm traditional public school districts. Question 2 went down by a big margin of 62 to 38 percent.
In pro-Trump Georgia, voters rejected Amendment 1, a referendum backed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, which sought to create a new state-run agency that would take over local schools deemed to be failing and allow them to become charter schools run by private entities. In both races, pro-charter forces from across the country spent big money toward both losing causes.
They also poured money into an unsuccessful effort in Washington state to change the state Supreme Court. Charter school supporters, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, contributed to the campaign against three judges who had upheld lower court rulings saying that the state’s method for funding charter schools was unconstitutional. The court’s chief justice, Barbara Madsen, was the big target, but she won with nearly 65 percent of the vote. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, had also been targeted by charter supporters, but he won.
Charter supporters did, however, win a number of state and local races, underscoring just how divided the country is not just about Trump but about what to do with public schools.