VT Digger: William Mathis: Trump’s Education Budget - A Paradise Lost?

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

“But all was false and hollow; though his tongue Dropp’d manna
and could make the worse appear the better reason.”
— John Milton, Paradise Lost, II.I.112

We had a vision of a more perfect nation where democracy and equality were more than aspirations. We believed we could make this piece of paradise real with the unity of the people and the purposefulness of our governments. But this has been reduced to an endless series of false and hollow incantations whose lifespan is as transient as its denial in the next morning’s news cycle.

In 1965, the federal government, driven by the obligation to provide equal opportunities to the least fortunate of our citizens, passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It was intended to lift the nation by strengthening our poorest children and schools, improving the quality of teaching, opening the doors of higher education, and providing skills to adults. It embraced the ideal voiced by the late President Kennedy that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” And the emphasis was on building the common good. By widely investing in our citizens, we invest in the health of our society and economy.

Those principles have found no refuge in the work of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; all that remains of these great purposes are a confusion of empty words made to appear as if the worst were the better. Larded with phrases like “commitment to improving education” and “maintaining support for the nation’s most vulnerable students,” Trump proposes to slash federal education programs by $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent. This is on top of past unmet needs, since federal obligations to poor and special education children have never been fully met. Starved programs are now set to have their rations reduced or cut entirely.

With a remarkable lack of compassion, the Special Olympics budget was zeroed. Twenty-two programs are eliminated including community learning centers, arts, pre-school and teacher improvement.

Blind to clear evidence, every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education returns $8 in positive social outcomes such as reduced unemployment, stable families, less incarceration and the like. Yet the Trump budget treats this wise and productive investment as another area to defund: Head Start and child care are slotted for small reductions, while preschool development grants are entirely eliminated.

It doesn’t get any easier for poor and middle-class students as they get older. Loan forgiveness programs for new college graduates working in schools or government would be eliminated. Student loan interest would be increased. In Trump’s plan, 300,000 students would lose their work-study jobs. In all, $143 billion would be removed over 10 years.

Why make these cuts? The proposal calls for an increase in defense spending of more than $50 billion (a 10 percent increase) plus tax cuts for the wealthy – and that money has to come from somewhere. By these deeds, a capacity for war is valued more than the needs of the citizenry.

Yet, Trump says “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” This budget raises questions about whether his true objective is to cut civil rights. The proposal’s centerpiece is school choice. The budget seeks to funnel $1.4 billion, in new as well as repurposed funds, into private schools. The “civil rights” framing is stunning doubletalk, since a growing body of independent research shows that school choice segregates students by race, handicap and socioeconomic level.

While there are well-funded partisans who claim that school choice results in better education, an objective look at the data says otherwise. Four recent major studies have examined test-score outcomes for voucher students — in D.C., Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana — and all four studies show these students doing worse than if they had stayed in public school. The results for charter schools don’t look good enough to justify the rhetoric. Charter schools and public schools perform about the same in terms of test-score outcomes, with poor schools and exceptional schools being distributed among both sectors. In short, school choice is not a way to increase achievement or equality.

At all levels, the federal government’s long-standing commitment to tackling inequality is left behind. Instead the budget addresses these concerns by reducing services and by growing a competitive choice system that pits schools and families against each other. In this jarring half-light of contradictions, the worst is claimed to be the better.

The election promises still resonate. Manufacturing was to be restored, the little guy would be taken care of, and the dispossessed would have a champion to restore an imagined great Utopia. Instead, it is a coarsened, contradictory and conflicted selfishness, which lessens the common good. It promises manna but takes from the needy to give to the rich. It is far more dangerous than an education appropriation. Its values threaten our democratic society. Instead of a paradise regained, it is a paradise lost.

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William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year....