During his January 20, 2017, inaugural address, Donald Trump triumphantly proclaimed, “The people became the rulers of this nation again.” A Trump presidency, he stated, would begin the process of “transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the American People.” Rather than enhancing the power of the people, however, the essence of the Trump administration has become evident after its first 100 days: to weaken democratic norms and institutions that would resist the administration’s ultimate goal of shifting public wealth and power into the hands of a state-supported oligarchy.
Trump’s most insidious assault on democratic institutions may lie in his future education policy. Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a billionaire “philanthropist,” and disciple of unfettered free-market economics, the future of public k-12 education indeed looks bleak. Over the span of 200 years, the American public education system has adapted to societal struggles over immigration, civil rights, gender equality and how to adjust to the demands of globalization. Public schooling has been subjected to criticism over tax-supported financing, curricular initiatives related to changing economic priorities, the racial integration of its classrooms, and providing equal access to students with physical/cognitive disabilities and gender identities.
Often overlooked in these controversies is the essential purpose of the public school: the formation of an American identity as defined by an engaged-citizenry. The public school is the arena in which the American experiment in democratic pluralism takes place; students from all cultures, races and class identities share this public space and engage in a collective enterprise to define the American ideal of e pluribus unum. As John Dewey argued in Democracy and Education, democracy was dependent on two essential criteria: “many interests consciously communicated and shared” and “varied and free points of contact with other modes of association.” Dewey argued a public school provided the essential opportunity for contact and discourse across class, gender, racial and ethnic differences. As such, schooling for a democratic society was to be inclusive. A community that establishes exclusive educational arenas threatens the fundamental principles of democracy. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to provide $20 billion to orchestrate an aggressive nationwide school choice policy. The policy would create the exclusive educational domain Dewey warned against, allowing families to send their children to private charter or sectarian schools financed by public tax dollars.
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For nearly two decades, Betsy DeVos has used her extensive financial resources to support Republican candidates at the state and national level who advocate for voucher programs. She has also financed a bevy of nonprofit organizations devoted to for-profit, privately managed charter schools in Michigan and other parts of the country. DeVos helped finance a Michigan ballot initiative in 2000 to establish a voucher program in that state. The ballot initiative failed.
DeVos, like many of the political “outsiders” selected for Trump’s cabinet, was chosen to lead the Department of Education because of her ideological purity and commitment to shake up the government bureaucracy. DeVos may be the least qualified secretary of education in modern history. She has only attended Christian private schools culminating with her graduation in 1979 from Calvin College, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. She does not have teaching or administrative experience, or demonstrated expertise in educational research. Most importantly, DeVos has no experience in publiceducation policy. Experience in the public policy arena is not a high priority in the Trump administration. What matters to Trump is ideological principles and loyalty. Through the DeVos appointment, Trump has solidified his political capital with evangelical Christians who are an important component of his political base. He also found an anti-union, free-market crusader who seems willing to do battle with the nation’s teacher unions.
DeVos’ life experience growing up in the fundamentalist Christian Reformed Church in Michigan shaped her view on the role of education in public life. According to Politico, DeVos and her husband claimed the Christian faith is their motivation for reforming education. In a 2001 audio recording, the DeVoses stated: “The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community.” In the recording, the DeVoses also stated school choice programs create “greater Kingdom gain,” a clear reference to expanding religious-based schooling. According to an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, DeVos has used her family wealth to push a school choice agenda focusing on privately owned, for-profit educational management companies that are not subject to the same accountability and oversight required of public schools. Expansion of for-profit charter schools has been especially noticeable in Detroit. According to Politico, the influx of charter schools has “weakened public financing of the public system and led to declining enrollment.”
DeVos conveniently ignores empirical research that has shown privately run charter and voucher programs have lower levels of academic achievement than traditional public schools. According to The New York Times, lottery students who were enrolled in private school voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio had lower test scores in mathematics, and lower or negligible increases in reading scores than public school students who applied for the lottery but stayed in public schools. The decline in math and reading scores were so dramatic in Louisiana that a member of Harvard Graduate School of Education claimed the effect was as “large as any he’d seen in the history of American educational research.”
DeVos’ unwavering belief in school vouchers experienced another setback when an April 2017 study of the federally funded District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) was undertaken by the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The study found the OSP had a “statistically significant negative impact on math achievement,” revealed no statistically significant differences in reading scores, and had no significant impact on parental involvement in schools that OSP recipients attended. The study did find a positive impact on parent’s perception of safety at OSP schools. In reaction to the findings, DeVos claimed a one-year study was not long enough to make “long-term conclusions about school choice programs,” and tried to reframe the issue by stating, “offering parents choice benefited the whole system” according to The Washington Post. Donald Trump seemed oblivious to the negative results. Politico reported he called on members of Congress to “help extend school choice to millions more children all across the United States of America, including millions of low-income, Hispanic and African American children that deserve the same chance as every other child in America, to live out their dreams and fill up their hearts and be educated at the top, top level.” Congress reauthorized the OSP through 2019, maintaining its $45 million budget.
When education comes under the control of private educational management companies the primary purpose of schooling becomes the pursuit of profit. The school, rather than a community asset, becomes subject to the vagaries of the stock market. Students’ success is measured by profit margins and citizenship becomes just another commodity. BetsyDeVos will soon be presented with a very important public policy decision — will she decide to support and improve the inclusive public system, or abandon it in the interest of corporate greed?