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Janresseger: What Will a Trump Administration Mean for Supporters of Public Education?

We don’t know very much about President-Elect Donald Trump’s ideas about education. Although, during the campaign, Trump briefly presented a plan for a $20 billion block grant program for states to expand market-based school choice, and although he has hinted that he will reduce the role of the U.S. Department of Education and particularly its civil rights enforcement division, there has been no substantive explanation or discussion of these ideas.

One thing we do know for sure, however, is that every branch of our federal government will be dominated by Republicans—the Presidency, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court.

A new President whose plans we do not know.  The absence of checks and balances. Federal public education policy that has for years been undermining support for the institution of public education.  Those of us who believe improving the public schools is important have good reason to be nervous, even afraid.

After all, in 2000 and especially after we were distracted in September of 2001 by the attacks on the World Trade Center, we were unprepared to speak to the federal test-and-punish education law, No Child Left Behind. We failed to connect the dots between an accountability-driven, poorly funded testing mandate and the destruction of respect for school teachers and the drive for school privatization that lurked just under the surface of federal policy.  And in 2008, we didn’t anticipate the collusion of government technocrats and philanthro-capitalists that emerged when the federal stimulus gave billions of dollars to the U.S. Department of Education for competitive experiments with top-down turnarounds to close and privatize schools and attack teachers.

Advocates for improving public schools—particularly the schools in the struggling neighborhoods of our cities where poverty is concentrated—were unprepared.  We struggled to define what it all meant. Why had accountability replaced nurturing children as the mission of the schools? How are achievement gaps affected by opportunity gaps?  What did it mean that everyone had come to define school quality by test scores without any attention to the capacity of communities to provide the necessary conditions for teaching and learning?  How had it happened that everybody was suddenly focused on so-called “failing” schools?  Why did everyone suddenly feel that it was appropriate to blame and castigate school teachers who were said to be protecting adult interests instead of putting students first? And how had it happened that so many people prized the innovation that was supposed to come with charter schools unbound from bureaucratic regulations, and yet those in charge no longer worried about strengthening the oversight necessary for protecting children’s rights and the expenditure of tax dollars?  How had so many people come to accept that the market would take care of all this?

We watched with dismay as all this came to pass, but we were unprepared to name it, unprepared to think through how it all worked, unprepared to do something about it.

But there is an important development these days among advocates for public schools—the people who agree that we need to promote equity and justice in education’s public sector.  Advocates today share broad consensus around the following priorities:

  • driving long-denied public investment to improve the public schools in our poorest communities where family poverty is concentrated, and correcting inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding;
  • addressing family poverty that, research has demonstrated again and again, is likely to undermine children’s achievement at school;
  • ensuring that public dollars are not diverted and that charter schools do not operate as parasites destroying their host school districts;
  • supporting school teachers as a strong, stable cadre of professionals;
  • reducing reliance on standardized testing and eliminating high stakes punishments including turnarounds;
  • rejecting privatization of education and ensuring strong oversight by government of the institutions that serve our children and spend our tax dollars;
  • eliminating widespread overuse—especially in the schools serving our society’s poorest children—of the practices of suspending and expelling students and the widespread obedience-driven discipline practices imposed on poor children when more privileged children attend schools where they are encouraged to question and engage.

At the national level, organizations supporting justice and equity in public education are now unified across a range of constituencies and sectors to endorse and work for these values and priorities.  Here are just some of the centers of advocacy these days:

  • The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a broad coalition of unions—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union; civil rights and community organizing groups–Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, Center for Popular Democracy, Journey for Justice Alliance; and academic, philanthropic and justice advocacy groups—the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Gamaliel Network, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
  • The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have recently come together in the civil rights community to challenge privatization and lack of oversight as charter schools have expanded.
  • The Network for Public Education is an alliance of advocates including school teachers, activists, and bloggers in support of strong and inclusive public schools and in opposition to unregulated charter schools and to over-reliance on high stakes testing.
  • The National Education Policy Center, located at the University of Colorado, publishes academic research and reviews research from other agencies on education policy.
  • The Education Law Center, and its Education Justice program, and Public Advocates and other school law attorneys are working for school funding equity and civil rights protection.

Last week the education writer, Jonathan Kozol, reminded us about what most of us now know how to articulate but what, ten or fifteen years ago, we would have struggled to say: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy.  What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters.  It isn’t good… for democracy.”

Today we are well-aware of the organizations that have persistently undermined support for public education and at the same time pressed for an unregulated school marketplace as the alternative: the Hoover Institution; the Heritage Foundation; the American Enterprise Institute; the Thomas Fordham Foundation; Michigan’s Dick and Betsy DeVos and their many far-right organizations; New York hedge fund managers spreading their billions across New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts via the dark money Families for Excellent Schools; the New Schools Venture Fund; the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington that promotes portfolio school reform; the Gates, Walton, and Broad venture philanthropies spending billions promoting charter schools; the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan that granted billions of dollars—without much oversight at all according to the Department’s own Office of Inspector General— to states to expand charter schools; and the American Legislative Exchange Council that promotes school privatization across the states via its large membership of state legislators.

The same election that brought us President-Elect Donald Trump also brought evidence that today’s public school advocates have become organized  and effective. Question 2 to expand the growth of charter schools went down to resounding defeat in a Massachusetts referendum, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s plan for state takeover and charterization of Georgia’s struggling public schools was also soundly defeated at the polls.  Voters responded to protect the idea of public education when the stakes for public schools were clearly defined by well organized and well informed advocates.

During a Donald Trump administration we must stay organized, raising our voices persistently to name and frame our concerns with precision and passion.  A public education system is the best institution to meet the needs of all kinds of children and protect their rights through law.  Our public schools are, of course, imperfect.  It is our responsibility to pay attention and ensure that our schools work for all children.  Democracy makes our role as citizens possible and requires engaged citizenship.

Looking back on his life as an education professor and advocate for education, Bill Ayers suggests something that will be particularly important for us to remember under the presidency of Donald Trump: that public education is the institutional embodiment of the values that define our democracy. “Education for free people is powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal. Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a work in progress and a force in motion, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force, each of us born equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience and agency, each deserving a dedicated place in the community of solidarity as well as a vital sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect.  Embracing that basic ethic and spirit, people recognize that the fullest development of each individual—given the tremendous range of ability and the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, points of origin, and background—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each. This has obvious implications for education policy.” (Demand the Impossible, p. 161)

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...