President Trump’s inaugural address alarmed many educators around the country with his reference to public schools. Here’s what he said:

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

The notion that public school districts are loaded with money is certainly not new, and, objectively, it is true that a lot of money is spent on public education in the United States. That, however, doesn’t explain stories with headlines like this one, for example, on Oklahoma’s NewsOK.com, “Education foundations help bolster school budgets.” It starts this way:

“As school districts battle monster budget cuts, education foundations for rural and urban schools are funding grants for innovative teaching and filling in gaps by providing basic classroom supplies.”

In this post, a teacher takes issue with Trump’s characterization of public schools. He is Jake Miller, a seventh-grade American history teacher in Harrisburg. Miller is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 National Education Association Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, the Guardian, and several other periodicals. He has been writing for the Educator’s Room website, where a version of this post first appeared, since 2012.

By Jake Miller

In his inaugural address, President Trump said that the United States was burdened with “an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

Let’s examine what the five presidents previous to Trump said about education in their inaugural addresses:

  • “Our schools fail too many … And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.” –President Barack Obama, 2009
  • “The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it.…Together we will reclaim America’s schools before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives…Government has great responsibilities for public safety and public health, for civil rights and common schools. Yet, compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government.” –President George W. Bush, 2001
  • “The urgent question of our time is whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy… and when millions of poor children cannot even imagine the lives we are calling them to lead, we have not made change our friend…We must provide for our Nation the way a family provides for its children… Let us all take more responsibility not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country.” -President Bill Clinton, 1993
  • “Our children are watching in schools throughout our great land. And to them I say, thank you for watching democracy’s big day. For democracy belongs to us all, and freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze. And to all I say, no matter what your circumstances or where you are, you are part of this day, you are part of the life of our great nation.” –President George H. W. Bush, 1989
  • “[‘We the People’] is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we’re sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers.” –President Ronald Reagan, 1981

Even where the rhetoric is about “failing schools,” there is an expressed hope to improve the lives of children. To be fair, Trump, too, echoed that sentiment when he said in the same address:

“Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.”

Those are, indeed, just and reasonable demands.

The problem is that Trump’s emphasis was on the negative, when he linked public schools to the “American carnage” of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” and “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”

Only one week into his administration,  Trump has alienated those of us in the public education system.

To be sure, other presidents have let us down too.  Obama chose as his first education secretary Arne Duncan, who promoted corporate reform policies and used federal power to get states to do what it wanted. His second education secretary, John King Jr., did the same thing. George W. Bush passed his landmark No Child Left Behind, which ushered in the era of high-stakes standardized testing accountability systems, and changed the landscape of education. Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Reagan didn’t systemically improve public education either.

But the early evidence suggests that the Trump administration could be the greatest challenge that the American compulsory public education system has ever faced.

‘Flush with cash’

Let’s return to Trump’s comment about the public education system being “flush” with cash.

The United States spends a lot on public education,  an average of about $12,000 per student. Granted the spending is high, but the United States is also one of the wealthiest nations in the world — and it only spends approximately 5.5 percent of its GDP on education, ranking us at 56th in the world, according to the World Bank, right between the United Kingdom and Austria. It is also true that for all its wealth, the United States has the highest level of income inequality. In the past, education used to be the great equalizer, but now some economists are wondering if the “American Dream” might be dead.

More than that, our schools are hardly representative of being “flush with cash.” While a nearby state senator decided to fly over my school in a helicopter and declare that schools were “not underfunded” because of what he saw as superfluous spending, we’ve also been growing our district at a roughly 5 percent increase in students each year. When we ask the school board for a 3 percent raise, they laugh at us because the money is not there.

And while I face this problem in a relatively upper-middle-class school district, other school districts across the nation face a multitude of issues when it comes to staffing, buildings, technology, and more. The teachers and students are highlighting it for the president on Twitter #FlushWithCash (scroll through the photos to see what’s going on).

‘Deprived of all knowledge’

American students are “deprived of all knowledge” in America’s schools? All knowledge? Really?

Thank you, President Trump, for allowing me to create a lesson on hyperbole.

Look, I understand that there are legitimate concerns about how well some public schools are educating students. Yes, the United States doesn’t perform near the top on international tests, such as the Program of International Student Assessment, known as PISA. But demonizing the teaching profession isn’t going to help things — and, besides, there are large questions about the value of PISA scores as comparisons of the effectiveness of school systems. There’s a reason that hundreds of academics and school activists from around the world wrote in 2014 to PISA director Andreas Schleicher, asking him to come up with an improved assessment.

Let’s not forget that the skills that American employers covet — chief among them creativity and problem-solving — are being fostered by American schools better than any other country in the world.

Moving forward

The American public education system certainly needs to improve and innovate. But that isn’t going to happen if the president and his administration don’t think it has any value. Betsy Devos, Trump’s nominee for education secretary, once called the public education system a “dead end.”

Educators would be happy to help the new administration find ways to improve public schools — if it is really receptive to our ideas.

There’s no evidence yet that it is.