Day after day this week, the streets of Los Angeles hosted an increasingly familiar sight: a wave of striking teachers and their supporters clad in red, marching to strengthen public education by demanding smaller classes, reductions in high-stakes testing, better pay and more support staff. Defying the rain for multiple days of their strike, they held signs declaring themselves “ON STRIKE FOR OUR STUDENTS,” implicitly affirming that the #RedForEd movement revived by striking teachers in 2018 remains alive and well in 2019, too.
From surges in teacher organizing to Trump administration attacks on students’ safety and dignity, 2018 offered examples of both the best and worst in public education. On the hopeful side, last year, teachers – particularly in states long beset by anti-union policies, chronic underfunding and low pay – launched powerful and effective strikes. Although in its Janus v. AFSCME decision the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority rewarded decades of corporate attacks on public sector unions, teachers and other public employees in many places are sticking to the union. Nevertheless, the Trump administration continued to weaponize the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) against the very youth whose rights OCR exists to protect, bringing the culture war to schools by serving up marginalized students’ rights and dignity at school as red meat for Trump’s political supporters. Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the administration has also given cover to predatory for-profit colleges and had to be sued in order to begin forgiving student loans held by borrowers who’d been scammed by such institutions.
But important opportunities exist amid the cruelty and chaos imposed by Trump, DeVos and like-minded people around the country. It’s worth remembering that the Trump administration does not wield absolute control over our country’s schools, and they’ll be out of power in the less-distant-than-it-feels future. Though we’re still in the earliest days of 2019, Election 2020 is already heating up, which offers a chance to make sure federal candidates know we demand their full support for education justice. Our next president must not only pledge to respect America’s diverse student body but prove it by appointing a well-qualified and compassionate education secretary who’s ready to shred every page of DeVos’s bad policies as soon as humanly possible. We need to elect senators who will confirm that person, too.
And lest we forget as the 2020 presidential race already starts to dominate headlines, 2019 will be an election year for many state and local boards of education, as well as other officials who influence education spending and governance. Public school advocates will be wise to leverage Americans’ increasing engagement in political life to elect pro-public-school candidates who support full and fair funding, who commit to opposing privatization and resisting related attacks on unions, and who resolve to protect all students’ rights at school, particularly the kinds of students facing the greatest harm right now.
As for Trump and DeVos’s culture war education policies (like all of their policies), it’s important that we recognize them for what they are: a desperate attempt to preserve a white (male) supremacist power structure that is cracking and crumbling under the pressure of increasingly bold, unapologetic movements for justice and inevitable demographic shifts. Our schools are just beginning to respect the identities, experiences and rights of their diverse student populations because of the same student organizing and legal advocacy that pushed the Obama administration to affirm the civil rights protections under attack by the Trump administration. Yet Trump represents an ever-shrinking minority of Americans, the bloc of change-resistant white voters who can’t imagine what it looks like to actually share power with their fellow (and aspiring) Americans, and therefore want to punish the rest of us for the discomfort they feel as we reshape this society into something that might yield liberty and justice for all.
The transition between the oppressive order they’d like to preserve and the free society we’re working to build has been (and will continue to be) ugly. But even in the places where we’ve yet to defeat their policies outright — like the current US Department of Education — we can still do a lot to protect our students, schools and communities. Indeed, on the education front, we have the opportunity to shift policy in ways that confront not only the Trump administration’s policies, but also the longtime trend toward neoliberal education reform that preceded Trump. Forward-thinking educators, students, families, and advocates can use our social, cultural and political power to make our schools safe and respectful places for all students to learn.
With that in mind, here’s a look at two overall themes of contestation and struggle we can expect to witness in the fight for public education in 2019.
Corporate Interests vs. the Public Good
Decades-long efforts to undermine unions and related efforts by corporate interests to privatize and profit off of schools and students began long before Trump took office and will continue to be a major point of struggle for public education advocates in 2019. Groups like the DeVos-funded Mackinac Center for Public Policy are still hard at work trying to convince teachers and other public employees to abandon their unions post-Janus, while groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the so-called Fairness Center are continuing to push anti-union legislation in state legislatures and challenge pro-union laws in state courts. Meanwhile, DeVos has continued to direct taxpayer money to charter schools with spotty records, and is preparing to issue regulations that would further eviscerate Obama-era protections against for-profit colleges that defraud students.
But none of this will go down without a fight in 2019. As Seth Frotman, who previously served as the top student loan officer in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before DeVos’s actions led him to resign in protest, said to POLITICO, “Betsy DeVos has brought a special mix of incompetence and malevolence to Washington — and that’s rocket fuel for every committee in a new Congress that will finally provide oversight.” Now in the majority, several Democrats in the House of Representatives have pledged to investigate and hold DeVos accountable on this and several other issues, including civil rights issues.
Likewise, union organizers and allies who recognize the importance of protecting workers’ rights already stepped up their work last year in anticipation of Janus. As ongoing organizing efforts like the one that generated the UTLA [United Teachers Los Angeles] strike beautifully demonstrate, they will continue strengthening schools and communities by working to keep existing members, recruiting newcomers to their professions to join, including charter school teachers and other employees who haven’t traditionally been unionized, and confronting anti-union attacks in statehouses and courts.
Right-Wing Culture Wars vs. Students’ Civil Rights
In addition to occasionally flirting with the idea of arming teachers, DeVos has spent the last two years dismantling key protections against identity-based discrimination in schools and universities, initially by rescinding key guidances — documents that explain how federal civil rights laws like the Education Amendments of 1972 should be implemented in schools — and rolling back civil rights enforcement as she did when she gutted policies protecting transgender students, students who have experienced sexual harassment and assault, students of color and students with disabilities facing unfair discipline, and more. Now that those initial steps are done, she’s taking aim at the underlying regulations that govern how important civil rights laws are interpreted in schools. For example, her department is currently pushing Title IX regulations that, if implemented as currently written, would grant special rights to named harassers and rapists and let schools off the hook for ignoring sexual violence. In doing all of this, she’s playing politics with the futures of millions of students at risk of being pushed out of school and/or shunted into the school-to-prison pipeline.
However, the protections DeVos has rescinded are rooted in federal law as well as decades of past court precedent, none of which she has the power to change. Likewise, some states and localities also have laws protecting students from the kind of discrimination DeVos is trying to enable, giving students, families and advocates multiple legal and political avenues to challenge these policies.
Finally, everyone can continue pushing for the kind of social and cultural change that DeVos, Trump and their supporters are attacking. There are limitless ways to do this, and many individuals, schools and districts are already doing them. These include strategies like ending discriminatory discipline policies and implementing restorative practices, improving inclusion practices for students with disabilities, expanding anti-bias education in pre-service and professional learning programs for educators and other school employees, teaching consent and healthy relationship skills to students and educators alike, and more. Advocates can also use digital media to highlight schools and districts that are doing things worth emulating and to exert public pressure on behalf of students who are being wronged in their local communities.
2019 could be a critical year in the fight for public schools. Though there is significant work ahead and no guaranteed outcomes, public education advocates have significant momentum on our side, particularly if we can continue engaging people eager to heal the now-undeniable rifts the Trump administration has exposed in our country.