William Mathis: The Trump education agenda

Editor’s note: This commentary is by William J. Mathis, who is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a member of the State Board of Education. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinion of any group with which he is associated.

Education was in the shadows during the presidential election. And, divining the directions of the incoming administration requires penetrating a translucent fog. The task is compounded by what the media euphemistically calls the president-elect’s penchant of “walking back” strong earlier statements. Ringing declarative statements evaporate beneath milquetoast assurances. Nevertheless, there are some points with greater clarity. But whether these will be implemented, modified, rejected by Congress or simply wither away taxes the power of my crystal ball.

Here are the most prominent of Trump’s education proclamations:

Charter Schools – Candidate Trump said he would invest $20 billion in charter schools. This is the centerpiece proposal, which I address below.

Scuttling the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka-NCLB) – With much fanfare, the long-delayed, bi-partisan reauthorization of the flagship federal education law took place last year. The new implementation rules were approved in November but will the Trump administration pull these agreements and start over? Will funding be slashed? Since these rules were a year in the making, any new balancing of compromises would be slow.

The Elimination of the Department of Education – Trump has called for the elimination of the federal education agency, which elicits a good deal of applause. Yet to implement his plans, Trump will need a department to get them done. With members of both houses and both parties calling for greater state authority, expect the federal footprint to shrink.

Common Core Curriculum – Trump has called the Common Core a disaster and secretary-designee Betsy DeVos concurs. Driven by congressional objections to “federal overreach,” curriculum initiatives will likely wane. And since the $20 billion for charter schools will have to be found by cutting other programs, expect Common Core and programs without strong constituencies to be on the block.

Secretary of Education Designee — In the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, we see the elevation of a person with great wealth, considerable political skills, deeply religious convictions and a reputation as a pitbull for advancing charter schools. She is a lobbyist, a former state chair of the Republican Party and a philanthropist — who has contributed $1.2 billion to privatizing education, Christian organizations and conservative think-tanks. Her husband is the Amway heir and her brother is the founder of Blackwater.

As the nation’s chief executive officer for public schools, she has no credentials whatsoever. She has never attended a public school, has no academic background in the field, her children have never attended a public school, and she has never held a position in a school district. To appoint a cabinet officer with no relevant training or experience to the nation’s top job in the field has stunned prominent educators.

Republicans are on record as wanting to cut the federal influence over education and return educational issues to the states. They are also on record as wanting to control or reduce federal spending.

 

Her husband and she are credited with being the driving force behind Michigan’s charter school law. They have also been tagged with the poor performance of these same schools. The New York Times said deVos, “is partly responsible for what even charter [school] advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country.” The Times also reports she has steered money away from public schools. She has spoken plainly about increasing the role of Christianity in the public schools (which raises substantial constitutional problems).

Charter Schools — As Trump has said he wants to invest $20 billion in charter schools, what do we know about these schools? They are the most prominent type of private school and have been authorized in 40 states. There is a massive independent body of research with a strong consensus across different perspectives. While individual studies can be found supporting any point of view, the overall knowledge base tells us that:

• on average; charters perform no better or worse than traditional public schools;
• they have a reported high level of fraud and mismanagement;
• they dilute public investment in education by siphoning off funds to run a parallel system; and
• they segregate students and society.

Despite claims of innovation, charters employ the same methods and thus, the results are similar. Fraud and mismanagement is concentrated among charter chains. In terms of diluting resources, Trump has said he would take the $20 billion from other programs. To put this in perspective, the federal appropriation for needy children (Title I) is $15 billion and another $13 billion is set aside for special education. This would have a devastating effect on other programs and is a reverse Robin Hood strategy.
From the perspective of a democratic society, the greatest danger is in segregative effects. More affluent parents may put their personal funds with government funds to attend a more prestigious school. This is not an option available to less wealthy parents. The research on selection effects is that schools segregate by economic level and by race. This raises constitutional issues.

Will any of these things get done? Paradoxically, there is a chance that relatively little will get done. Republicans are on record as wanting to cut the federal influence over education and return educational issues to the states. They are also on record as wanting to control or reduce federal spending. Charter popularity may be waning as Massachusetts voters just sank a charter expansion bill on a 2-1 vote. Georgians just defeated a state takeover bill. Politically, advocates for the handicapped and the needy will make their voices heard. Then there is the one constant – the federal government has always underfunded education. But what will actually happen?? Everyone’s crystal ball is murky.

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  • edward letourneau

    The only way the liberals are going to stop taxing people out of their homes, is if the Feds cut off the money for education — so that budgets are defeated, over and over. — I favor it.

  • “This commentary is by William J. Mathis, who is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a member of the State Board of Education. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinion of any group with which he is associated.”

    Yea…right. Never mind that much of what Mathis says is nuanced sophism. To have us believe that this special interest mogul isn’t going to advocate for the continued growth of the public school monopoly while lobbying the legislature and other State Board of Education appointees, doing whatever he can to stifle parent’s school choices, is pure folly.

    Mathis’ monopoly imposition presumes to be in everyone’s best interest, while the School Choice point of view he opposes realizes that his monopoly is sometimes incorrect in its judgment. It is a classic irreconcilable difference, the existential result of which, while still to be determined, is trending toward Mathis’ version of Totalitarianism.

  • Re: Charter Schools “….have a reported high level of fraud and mismanagement; ”

    Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, Mr. Mathis.

    Incidents of Fraud and/or Embezzlement in Vermont School Systems from 2008 to 2011

    http://auditor.vermont.gov/sites/auditor/files/Copy%20of%20SD%20Fraud%20spreadsheet.pdf

    • Vaughn Altemus

      That people commit financial crimes in public school districts is not news. The temptation to commit such crimes is reduced and the chances of getting caught increased by the level scrutiny. Spending is tracked continuously by school business officials. Districts are required to obtain external audits every year. Periodically, districts experience the pleasure of federal audits. A school board or an individual board member could bring a matter of concern to Mr. Hoffer. Tax dollars spent by public school districts are monitored in great detail.

      Yet when the state board of education proposes a much more modest level of scrutiny of public funds spent by independent schools, the very idea is met by cries of outrage. Is the embezzlement of $80 from a petty cash fund going to be made public by an independent school? Proper auditing protects taxpayers and the entity being audited. Why do independent school administrators find the financial equivalent of police protection so terrifying?

      • Re: “That people commit financial crimes in public school districts is not news. ”

        Apparently it is news to Mathis.

  • Re: Charter Schools “…dilute public investment in education by siphoning off funds to run a parallel system; ”

    Charter and Magnet schools also ‘siphon off’ students and with Charter and Magnet Schools the money follows the student. Mathis is more concerned with funding the monopoly than he is funding the student.

  • Re: Charter and Magnet schools “…segregate students and society.”

    More Mathis sophistry.

    If you want to see real Vermont examples of Charter/Magnet school diversity, consider Burlington’s Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes and the Integrated Arts Academy.

    “There is a rich ethnic mix of students, including roughly 46% white, 22% black, and 26% Asian. Or as Principal Williams put it another way, 50% from families traditional to the neighborhood; 20% who believe in the mission of the school; 30% new arrivals to Burlington from around the world, and speaking 15 different languages.”

    http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/vermont-report-shaping-the-soul-of-a-school/280455/

    • Vaughn Altemus

      Your ongoing effort to equate magnet schools run by public districts and independent schools is dishonest. Ironically, one of the expected benefits of Act 46 is that larger consolidated districts will have the ability to undertake the creative activities that previously were available only to large supervisory districts. The magnet schools meet all of the reporting requirements that would be an intolerable burden to independent schools.

      No one is going to take a voucher from Burlington out of state to pay part of the tuition to St. Andrews. (It happened.) And Burlington has no need to police residents to identify people who are trying to make second homes appear to be primary residences to collect vouchers to pay part of the tuition to exclusive schools.

      • More sophistry, Dr. Altemus? What a surprise.

        If anyone is dishonest, it’s you. I didn’t make a connection to ‘independent schools’ in this commentary. I was responding to Bill Mathis’ remark that Charter schools “…segregate students and society.”

        Your response exemplifies the deceptive misdirection being foisted on Digger readers by the SBOE and consultants like you. To presume that “… the ability to undertake … creative activities..” is “..available only to large supervisory districts” is disingenuous at best.

        Burlington’s Magnet schools are a case in point. When parents can choose small autonomous schools like these and realize that the accusations levied by Mathis are false, it discredits education monopoly advocates like you and Mathis. It’s no wonder that you continue to exercise this slight-of-hand.

  • Shuaib Ahmad

    Education is for enlightenment of our generations and not for creating prejudices in them. It must be planned for the whole human race and not for any one race or nation.

  • David Bell

    Since when did Trump care about facts and evidence?

    His entire campaign was based on denial of reality. He claimed we are in the midst of a crime wave despite statistics showing the opposite is true.

    No scientific organization of national or international standing denies the reality of AGW. He claims the Chinese just made it up.

    The President was born in Hawaii, Trump claims he was born in Kenya.

    This is a man who actually called on a foreign government to hack his political opponent in the hopes of swinging an election.

    An educated populace is the last thing Trump would want, intelligent, reasonable people would call him out for these actions and a hundred others. For Trump, lobotomizing our nations educational system is a feature, not a bug of his “reform”.

  • Matt Young

    William Mathis….friend of the big public education monopoly, enemy of children and families. He is a master artist, he paints a picture of discrimination in order to benefit the big public education monopoly. His message is convincing and he’s happy to use any angle to destroy the competition. He does his best to divide our communities into the haves and have nots, many buy into his rhetoric, he’s a pro. At the end of the day Mr. Mathis wants one thing, to advance the big public education monopoly, after all he’s made a lot of money working for big Ed, unfortunately he’s willing to harm children in his selfish quest. Shameful.

  • Jim Christiansen

    So, to sum up this commentary…

    I don’t know what the president-elect is going to do, but damn it, I’m sure gonna try to scare the hell out of you.
    The sky is falling!
    Only experts can understand education.
    The sky is falling!
    I don’t know what may change, but you better fear it.

  • James Rude

    “As the nation’s chief executive officer for public schools, she has no credentials whatsoever. She has never attended a public school, has no academic background in the field,”
    And that is probably one of the main advantages she has in her role. Our educational system is doing what it has done for the past 40+ years with so called innovations that have done little, other than decrease the literacy and math skills of our youth. As we are soon to experience in the political world, we need a similar shake up in the educational establishment.

  • Brian J Vogel

    “Despite claims of innovation, charters employ the same methods and thus, the results are similar.”

    An interesting comment coming from Mathis, who is trying to force Vermont Independent schools to abide by the same rules as public schools, thus destroying their freedom to innovate. Once he has eliminated any differences, independent schools will end up with the same results and can then be classified, to Mathis, as no better, redundant, and unnecessary.

  • Brian J Vogel

    “More affluent parents may put their personal funds with government funds to attend a more prestigious school.”

    This is a twisted way of viewing the beneficial effects of charter schools, that of giving individuals of more modest means access to greater choices. By directing public funds to follow the child, those previously unable to afford non-public alternatives can now find those schools within their reach. Contrary to Mathis’ opinion, charters reduce segregation.

  • Dave Bellini

    The good news is that Trump wants to eliminate the federal D.O.E. The bad news is, he’ll never do it. Liberals should be pushing for the elimination of the federal D.O.E. so they can have more “local control.” Also, many students can’t read at grade level or understand Algebra, what’s to lose by trying someone completely different?

  • John McClaughry

    Bill Mathis is a dedicated opponent of charter schools, which have never attracted much interest in Vermont. Without responding to his every questionable assertion, the crux of ex-Supt. Mathis’s opposition is that charter schools “dilute public investment in education by siphoning off funds to run a parallel system.” Completely untrue. Charter schools are public schools, chartered by and accountable to public bodies. Bill’s problem is that some of the “public investment in education” goes to charter schools which, though public, are outside the grip of the State Boards and Agencies of Education and compete with the regulated public school system of which Bill is a long time champion.

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