The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump opposes federal involvement in education. But do his plans ensure a ‘Race to the Bank’?

President-elect Donald Trump with Vice President-elect Mike Pence at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster Township, N.J. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President-elect Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he doesn’t support a strong federal involvement in public education. It’s a district and state responsibility, he says, and that’s how it should be. But what will the upcoming Trump administration actually do to ensure that this vision is implemented?

In this post, Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, looks at the signs that Trump and his allies have been waving about his education reform priorities and paints a disturbing picture of where the education world may be headed.

Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year in 2013. She recently wrote a series on California charters, which you can find here, here and here.

By Carol Burris

Donald Trump had little to say about education during the campaign, but that does not mean that he and those who surround him do not have a plan. There are clear indications that President Obama’s Race to the Top will be replaced with something that could be called “Race to the Bank,” as the movement to privatize education seems certain to accelerate under an administration run by Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence.

Trump’s disdain for public schools is apparent. The Trump/Pence website uses the adjective “government” instead of  “public” when referring to community schools. It claims that school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Donald Trump Jr. used the convention as an opportunity to denigrate public schools by comparing them to “Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.” Trump Jr.’s rhetoric belongs to a long-standing, right-wing belief that public education is a socialist institution and that schools should be run by the private sector.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about the “government” that runs public schools. It is not, as the slogan implies, a Washington cabal. Except in those cases where mayors have grabbed control, public schools are governed by locally elected school boards. The origin of the school board dates to 1647, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony required every town to establish a public school. Committees of school governance sprang up, becoming autonomous, local governing boards as early as the 1820s.

Nearly all school board members serve without pay. Most are dedicated, locally elected community servants who must abide by strict laws regarding conflict of interest — laws from which many corporate charter boards are exempt. Yet school boards are viewed as an impediment by billionaires, like Reed Hastings of Netflix, who argued that school boards should be replaced with corporate boards through charter expansion.

The elimination of democratically governed schools is the true agenda of those who embrace choice. The talk of “civil rights” is smoke and mirrors to distract.

The plan on the Trump-Pence website promotes redirecting $20 billion in federal funds from local school districts and instead having those dollars follow the child to the school of their choice — private, charter or public. States that have laws promoting vouchers and charters would be “favored” in the distribution of grants. Like Obama’s Race the Top, the competition for federal funds that states could enter by promising to follow Obama-preferred reforms, a Trump plan could use financial incentives to impose a federal vision on states.

The idea is not novel. Market-based reformers have referred to this for years as “Pell Grants for kids,” or portability of funding.

Portability, vouchers and charter schools have been hallmarks of Pence’s education policy as governor of Indiana. Unlike the Trump-Pence website, which frames choice as a “civil rights” initiative, Governor Pence did not limit vouchers to low-income families. He expanded it to middle-income families and removed the cap on the number of students who can apply.

It was promised that vouchers would result in savings, which then would be redistributed to public schools. What resulted, however, was an unfunded mandate. The voucher program produced huge school spending deficits for the state — a $53 million funding hole during the 2015-16 school year alone.  That deficit continues to grow.

The “money follows the student” policy has not only hurt Indiana’s public urban schools, it has also devastated community public schools in rural areas — 63 districts in the Small and Rural Schools Association of Indiana have seen funding reduced, resulting in the possible shutdown of some, even after services to kids are cut to the bone.

In contrast, charters have thrived in Indiana with Pence’s initiatives of taxpayer-funded, low-interest loan, and per-pupil funding for nonacademic expenses. For-profit, not-for-profit and virtual schools are allowed. Scams, cheating scandals and political payback have thrived, as well. Former Indiana education commissioner Tony Bennett was forced to resign as the commissioner of Florida[1] after it was discovered that he had manipulated school rating standards to save an Indiana charter school operated by a big Republican donor who gave generously to Bennett’s campaign.

Two nations, Chile and Sweden, fully implemented school choice. Both countries were influenced by the school privatization and choice theory of Milton and Rose Friedman, which is embraced by the incoming administration[2].

Chile’s choice system, imposed by dictator Augusto Pinochet, created a subsidized private school system in which schools could be run for profit. Chileans choose among elite private schools; public schools; and voucher schools, which are government-subsidized privates; and corporate schools, which are similar to American charters. Nearly all upper- and middle-class children attend private, corporate or voucher schools, leaving only the poor behind in the public schools. By 2011, Chile ranked 64 out of 65 in segregation across social classes in its schools and colleges.

The post-Pinochet government is banning for-profit schools, tuition and test-in criteria to try to fix the deep inequality caused by privatization, but progress is slow. Putting a public school system back together when it has been systematically disassembled is no easy task.

In the late 1990s, Sweden also embarked on a course of privatization as the driver of school reform. By 2011, the country went into “PISA shock” because Sweden was the only OECD[3] nation to see its scores decline every time PISA was given since the international test began in 2000. Sam Abrams’s book “Education and the Commercial Mindset” describes Swedish scandals and bankruptcies, grade inflation due to school marketing, higher costs, and increased segregation by social class caused by privatization. As in the case of Chile, only the neediest children were left in some of Sweden’s municipal schools.

Both nations show us the outcome of choice. Americans need to consider some tough questions, before embracing its allure.

Do we want our schools to be governed by our neighbors whom we elect to school boards, or do we want our children’s education governed by corporations that have no real accountability to the families they serve?

Do we to want to build our communities, or fracture them, as neighborhood kids get on different buses to attend voucher schools, or are forced to go to charters because their community public school is now the place that only those without options go?

Do we believe in a community of learners in which kids learn from and with others of different backgrounds, or do we want American schools to become further segregated by race, income and religion?

The most shocking instances of charter school scandal and fraud consistently appear in states that have embraced the choice “market” philosophy. Are we willing to watch our tax dollars wasted, as scam artists and profiteers cash in?

When it comes to improving education, we have been engaged in work avoidance for too long. Rather than putting our efforts into creating better, safer and more diverse neighborhoods with excellent schools, we have pretended that the marketplace offers the only solution. We gave up the dream. And the privatizers and billionaires who dismiss democracy as an annoyance cynically jumped in.

True community public schools cannot survive school choice. There are only two paths. Will we choose the path chosen by a Chilean dictator, or will we rebuild and nurture a system with deep roots in American tradition and idealism?

We cannot have both.

[1] Bennett was voted out of office by Indiana voters and then moved to Florida.

[2] The Friedman Foundation, which pushed vouchers and choice, rebranded itself and changed its name to EdChoice.

[3] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development