The War on Public Schools

The War on Public Schools

Charters, vouchers, and disposable teachers are Trump’s targets.

January 4, 2017

This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

On November 8, 2016, the man who vowed to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” won the presidential contest. About two weeks later he announced that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has aggressively lobbied for private-school vouchers, online education, and for-profit charter schools, would serve as his education secretary. In early December, Jeb Bush told an audience of more than 1,000 education reformers in Washington, D.C., that he hoped “there’s an earthquake” in the next few years with respect to education funding and policy. “Be big, be bold, or go home,” he urged the crowd.

To say education conservatives are ecstatic about their new political opportunities would be an understatement. With Republicans controlling the House and Senate, a politically savvy conservative ideologue leading the federal education department, a vice president who earned notoriety in his home state for expanding vouchers, charters, and battling teacher unions, not to mention a president-elect who initially asked creationist Jerry Falwell Jr. to head up his Department of Education, the stars have aligned for market-driven education advocates.

Donald Trump neither prioritized education on the campaign trail, nor unveiled detailed policy proposals, but the ideas he did put forth, in addition to his selection of Betsy DeVos, make clear where public education may be headed on his watch. And with a GOP Congress freed from a Democratic presidential veto, conservative lawmakers have already begun eyeing new legislation that just a few months ago seemed like political pipedreams.

Many aspects of education policy are handled at the state and local level, of course, but Republicans will govern in 33 states, and Trump will have substantial latitude to influence their agenda. The next few years may well bring about radical change to education.

 

School Choice

“President-elect Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has proclaimed. “Donald is going to create incentives that promote and open more charter schools. It’s a priority.”

Giuliani’s comments reflect the enthusiasm that Trump expressed about choice and charters while campaigning for president. During a March primary debate, Trump said charters were “terrific” and affirmed they “work and they work very well.” A few months later he traveled to a low-performing for-profit charter school in Cleveland to say he’d invest $20 billion in federal money to expand charters and private-school vouchers as president. His campaign has not outlined where the money would come from, but suggests it will be accomplished by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars.”

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In early December, Jeb Bush told an audience of more than 1,000 education reformers that he hoped "there's an earthquake" in the next few years with respect to education funding and policy. 

Trump’s ambitions will likely be aided by his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who worked vigorously to expand charter schools and vouchers while serving as Indiana’s governor. Pence loosened the eligibility requirements for students to obtain vouchers, and eliminated the cap on voucher recipients. Today, more than 30,000 Indiana students—including middle-class students—attend private and parochial schools with public funds, making it the largest single voucher program in the country. Pence also helped double the number of charter schools in his state; he increased their funding and gave charter operators access to low-interest state loans for facilities.

In the House and Senate, Republicans are eager to expand Washington, D.C.’s private-school voucher program, which has paid for about 6,500 students to attend mostly religious schools since the program launched in 2004. “I think [the Republican Congress and new administration] could eventually turn D.C. into an all-choice district like we see in New Orleans,” says Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Congress also allocates $333 million per year to the federal charter school program, and groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are calling for that number to rise to $1 billion annually. Martin West, an education policy professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, noted that to the extent the federal charter school program is well funded, states will continue to feel pressure to position themselves competitively for those dollars.

Conservative leaders at the state level are also looking to expand private-school vouchers and so-called education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, in addition to private-school tuition. At the Washington conference where Jeb Bush keynoted, panelists spoke enthusiastically about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in all 50 states. On the campaign trail, Trump called for expanding private-school vouchers for low-income students, but his vice president-elect and his nominee for education secretary both support giving vouchers to middle-class families, too.

Congressional Republicans may also try to establish federal tax-savings accounts for K–12, which are similar to the 529 plans that already exist for higher education, and which mainly benefit well-off families. They also may push for federal tax credit scholarships, which would provide tax relief to individuals and businesses that help low-income children pay for private school.

In a sense, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground for a federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization. In the bipartisan deal that led to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, Bush and Democrats led by Senator Edward Kennedy traded federal standards for more federal funding. The subtext was the Republican narrative that public schools were failing. This in turn led to the era of standardized testing and punitive measures against “failing” schools. Later, by appointing former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan to lead the Education Department, and passing over such progressive reformers as Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama sided with those who sought measures like the nationalization of academic standards. The new backlash from conservatives against testing and the Common Core should not be interpreted as a rejection of a federal role. The right loves it when Washington intervenes—if it serves the right’s purposes.

 

The Department of Education

Trump has boasted that he would reduce the size of the federal government, and his DeVos-led Department of Education is one likely place he’ll start. Though threatening to dismantle that federal agency is a long-standing Republican tradition, surrogates say it is more likely that Trump will try and “starve” the department, and downsize its responsibilities, rather than kill it outright.

Mark Taylor/Creative Commons

As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence worked vigorously to expand charter schools and vouchers.  

In October, Carl P. Paladino, a New York real-estate developer who was briefly considered for education secretary, took to the stage on Trump’s behalf at a national urban education conference and said the department’s Office for Civil Rights—which oversees initiatives like tackling college sexual assault and reforming school discipline—was spewing “absolute nonsense.”

Obama’s Education Department has given unprecedented attention to reducing racial disparities in school discipline, issuing the first set of national guidelines in 2014 and making clear that it would hold districts accountable for discriminatory practices. Policy experts think these efforts will fall quickly by the wayside in the coming years.

In a press conference following Trump’s victory, David Cleary, the chief of staff for Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said his boss believes the Office for Civil Rights should be reined in. “There will be aggressive oversight from Congress to make sure it shrinks back to its statutory authority and responsibilities,” Cleary said.

Another major threat to the Education Department is a significant loss of institutional knowledge. Politico reported that the agency is already experiencing a loss of morale since the election, and bracing for a serious brain drain: Many veteran employees who have served for decades, in addition to younger staff who entered government under Obama, are considering leaving because they don’t want to work for a President Trump.

 

Common Core

One crowd-pleasing element of candidate Trump’s stump speech was his promise to “kill” Common Core—the standards launched in 2009 that lay out what all K–12 students are expected to learn in English and math. The standards, which were created by a coalition of state governors, and incentivized by the Obama administration through the federal Race to the Top program, have been a flashpoint for conservatives, who see them as a threat to “local control.” Trump vowed to eliminate Common Core through the so-called School Choice and Education Opportunity Act—part of the legislative agenda he says he’ll focus on during his first 100 days. DeVos now stresses that she does not support Common Core, although an organization she founded—the Great Lakes Education Project, which she also funded and served as a board member for—strongly backed the standards in 2013.

While there are limits to what Trump and DeVos could do to end the Common Core standards (they are state standards, after all), Trump’s executive bully pulpit could certainly help embolden Common Core opponents on the local level.

Still, Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, is not so worried about the future of the national education standards. “I don’t even think Donald Trump knows what the Common Core is,” she says. And despite candidate Trump’s demagoguery, Brown points out that states haven’t really abandoned them, even in more conservative parts of the country. “To the extent that states have changed their standards, they basically renamed them and kept the basic content,” she says.

 

Teachers Unions

This past year, public-sector unions faced an existential threat from Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn a 40-year-old ruling that required public employees represented by a union to pay fees to cover the union’s bargaining and representation costs, even if they do not pay full membership dues. Five of the nine justices were clearly primed to rule against the so-called “agency fees” and upend decades of legal precedent, but Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February, before the Court could rule. The case ended up in a 4–4 tie, leaving the law, and collective bargaining, in place.

Now that the Republican Senate has refused to hold a vote on Obama’s appointment of Judge Merrick Garland, Trump will nominate a conservative Scalia successor to the Court. With a number of Friedrichs look-alike cases headed to the Supreme Court, it’s a near certainty that a reconstituted majority of five conservative justices will strike down agency fees, which could considerably reduce the resources available to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—two of the nation’s largest unions. Were that not trouble enough, the massive support that the AFT and NEA gave to Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not likely to endear them to a president with a well-known penchant for revenge.

 

Every Student Succeeds Act

At the end of 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funding to school performance. The new law is set to take full effect during the 2017–2018 school year. While there was broad recognition that ESSA marked a positive step forward from the test-and-punish regime that had reigned for 13 years under No Child Left Behind, a diverse coalition of civil-rights groups has worried that its replacement, which substantially reduced the federal government’s role in public education, will not do enough to hold states accountable for the success of racial minorities, students with disabilities, and English language–learners. “The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to Capitol Hill during the ESSA negotiations.

For the past year, the Obama administration worked to draft regulations that would help maintain some level of federal accountability for student learning and funding equity, particularly for disadvantaged students. These executive-level regulations, which have been controversial among congressional Republicans, are likely to be abandoned, or weakened, under President Trump.

One policy that congressional Republicans might push for under a President Trump is known as “Title I portability,” which would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. While still a candidate, Trump brought in Rob Goad, a senior adviser to Representative Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican, to help him flesh out some school-choice ideas. Messer co-sponsored a bill during the ESSA negotiations that would have launched Title I portability, but Obama threatened to veto any version of the law that contained it. A White House report issued in 2015 said that Title I portability would direct significant amounts of federal aid away from high-poverty districts toward low-poverty ones, impacting such districts as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia particularly hard. Conservatives may see a more politically viable route to push this policy under Trump.

Brown of the Center for American Progress doesn’t think Congress will likely pursue Title I portability, however, in part because it has a lot of other legislative priorities to attend to. “The ink is barely dry on ESSA; states haven’t yet submitted their plans. I think [portability] is probably dead on arrival, but maybe six years from now,” she says. Even then, Brown thinks the policy will never be all that popular, since huge swaths of the country lack many school options, making them poor candidates for private-school vouchers.

But other education experts say that the lack of brick-and-mortar schools in rural communities just means that the door could open more widely for for-profit virtual schools, which DeVos has strongly supported. In 2006, Richard DeVos, her husband, disclosed that he was an investor in K12 Inc., a national for-profit virtual charter school company that has since gone public. As of mid-December, Betsy DeVos had not clarified whether her family still holds a financial stake in the for-profit education sector.

 

Higher Education

Trump, who founded the now defunct for-profit college Trump University, recently agreed to pay $25 million to settle a series of lawsuits alleging fraud. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist at Temple University who studies college affordability, predicts America will be “open for business” under President Trump when it comes to promoting for-profit colleges. “This means cutting regulation and oversight, and defunding public higher education so that students view for-profits as a good deal,” she wrote on her blog following the election. The Higher Education Act, which governs the administration of federal student aid programs, is also up for reauthorization in 2017.

Obama-Biden Transition Project/Creative Commons

In a sense the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground for a federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization. Here, President Obama and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan take questions from the press at an education event. 

Trump didn’t devote much time while campaigning to talking about colleges and universities, but he did say in an October speech that he’d look to address college affordability by supporting income-based repayment plans, going against many Republicans who say such initiatives are fiscally reckless and create incentives to acquire too much higher education. Conservatives have also proposed rolling back Obama administration reforms that federalized all new student loans and applied stricter regulations, particularly to for-profit institutions. If President Trump does ultimately re-privatize student loans, consumer protections would likely disappear, and the cost of borrowing would rise.

University leaders are also worrying about what a Trump administration could mean for research funding. The government is likely to cut back on investments on budgetary grounds, but also on ideological grounds, since universities tend to be seen as liberal enclaves. Experts say that non-ideological scientific research is particularly vulnerable. House Republicans, led by Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, have tried before to cut federal funding for social sciences and climate and energy research, and having a president who refers to global warming as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” doesn’t augur well for federal research investments.

Moreover, as the president-elect frequently rails about political correctness, higher education leaders worry that a Trump administration will not look kindly on student free speech and protest. Ben Carson, who was briefly considered for Trump’s education secretary, said that if he were in control he would repurpose the department to monitor colleges and universities for “extreme bias” and deny federal funding to those judged to have it. Decrying alleged campus bias is a staple of “alt-right” (read: white nationalist) media outlets like Breitbart, whose chief, Steve Bannon, will be Trump’s strategic adviser and senior counselor.

 

The Path Forward for Progressives

For a week following the election, it wasn’t clear how exactly the liberal groups that backed Obama’s education reform agenda—Common Core standards, test-based accountability, and charter schools—would respond to their new choice-friendly president. The fact that the school reform agenda has long had bipartisan backing has always been one of its strongest political assets.

As pundits tried to guess whom Trump would pick for various cabinet-level positions, rumors started to float that Trump might be eyeing Michelle Rhee, the controversial former D.C. Public Schools chancellor, or Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, for education secretary. Both women back the Common Core standards, and are broadly revered among Democratic school reformers.

But on November 17, just over a week after the election, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, Shavar Jeffries, issued a strongly worded statement urging Democrats to refuse to accept an appointment to be Trump’s secretary of education. “In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids,” Jeffries said. He condemned Trump for his plans to eliminate accountability standards, to cut Title I funding, to reduce support for social services, and for giving “tacit and express endorsement” to racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes, and he called on the president-elect to disavow his past statements.

Shortly thereafter, Moskowitz announced that she would “not be entertaining any prospective opportunities” in the administration, but defended the president-elect, saying there are “many positive signs” that President Trump will be different than candidate Trump. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, took a tour of a Success Academy charter in Harlem later that week. Rhee, following a meeting with Trump a few days later, issued a statement saying she would not pursue a job in Trump’s administration but that “[w]ishing for his failure” would amount to “wanting the failure of our millions of American children who desperately need a better education.”

The equivocating didn’t end there. Democrats for Education Reform soon walked back their original declaration of opposition to Trump. In a statement sent to the group’s supporters, Jeffries wrote that DFER was not saying Democrats should not work with Trump on education, but just that no Democrat should work for him as secretary of education. “[W]e draw a distinction between working with and working for Trump,” Jeffries wrote. “Where appropriate, we will work with the Administration to pursue policies that expand opportunity for kids, and we will vocally oppose rhetoric or policies that undermine those opportunities.”

In a political climate where teachers-union strength may dramatically diminish, opposition to Trump’s agenda from liberals who supported Obama’s education reforms could be an important deterrent to Trump’s rightward march on education. But with DFER already signaling that it’s open to working with Trump, with high-profile reformers like Moskowitz and Rhee also giving him a public nod of approval, and since some of the same billionaires who fund the charter school movement also back the president-elect, the chances aren’t great that Democratic education reformers will staunchly oppose Trump’s school reform agenda.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is under no illusions about the enormous challenges that loom for the future of public education. Yet she notes that over the past half-decade, educators and their unions have worked with their communities like never before. “If Donald Trump opts for privatization, destabilization, and austerity over supporting public education and the will of the people,” she says, “well, there will be a huge fight.”

Advertisement
Advertisement