Commentary

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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