Carol Burris, veteran educator and executive director of the Network for Public Education, writes here about what the new Trump administration plans to do to American education. She foresees that President Obama’s “Race to the Top” will turn into President Trump’s “Race to the Bank,” as for-profit entrepreneurs find ways to cash in on the education industry. The ultimate goal is the elimination of public schools, which are a cornerstone of a democratic society.
The elimination of democratically governed schools is the true agenda of those who embrace choice. The talk of “civil rights” is smoke and mirrors to distract.
The plan on the Trump-Pence website promotes redirecting $20 billion in federal funds from local school districts and instead having those dollars follow the child to the school of their choice — private, charter or public. States that have laws promoting vouchers and charters would be “favored” in the distribution of grants. Like Obama’s Race the Top, the competition for federal funds that states could enter by promising to follow Obama-preferred reforms, a Trump plan could use financial incentives to impose a federal vision on states.
The idea is not novel. Market-based reformers have referred to this for years as “Pell Grants for kids,” or portability of funding.
Portability, vouchers and charter schools have been hallmarks of Pence’s education policy as governor of Indiana. Unlike the Trump-Pence website, which frames choice as a “civil rights” initiative, Governor Pence did not limit vouchers to low-income families. He expanded it to middle-income families and removed the cap on the number of students who can apply.
Pence attacked the funding and status of public education with gusto as governor, following the lead of his predecessor Mitch Daniels:
It was promised that vouchers would result in savings, which then would be redistributed to public schools. What resulted, however, was an unfunded mandate. The voucher program produced huge school spending deficits for the state — a $53 million funding hole during the 2015-16 school year alone. That deficit continues to grow.
The “money follows the student” policy has not only hurt Indiana’s public urban schools, it has also devastated community public schools in rural areas — 63 districts in the Small and Rural Schools Association of Indiana have seen funding reduced, resulting in the possible shutdown of some, even after services to kids are cut to the bone.
In contrast, charters have thrived in Indiana with Pence’s initiatives of taxpayer-funded, low-interest loan, and per-pupil funding for nonacademic expenses. For-profit, not-for-profit and virtual schools are allowed. Scams, cheating scandals and political payback have thrived, as well. Former Indiana education commissioner Tony Bennett was forced to resign as the commissioner of Florida after it was discovered that he had manipulated school rating standards to save an Indiana charter school operated by a big Republican donor who gave generously to Bennett’s campaign.
Burris shows how this kind of untrammeled school choice affected the schools of Chile and Sweden, where the far-right imposed Milton Friedman’s school choice theories. In Chile, the result was hyper segregation of all kinds; in Sweden, rankings on international exams fell. What was left of public schools were filled with the children of the poor.
Burris asks important questions:
Do we want our schools to be governed by our neighbors whom we elect to school boards, or do we want our children’s education governed by corporations that have no real accountability to the families they serve?
Do we to want to build our communities, or fracture them, as neighborhood kids get on different buses to attend voucher schools, or are forced to go to charters because their community public school is now the place that only those without options go?
Do we believe in a community of learners in which kids learn from and with others of different backgrounds, or do we want American schools to become further segregated by race, income and religion?
The most shocking instances of charter school scandal and fraud consistently appear in states that have embraced the choice “market” philosophy. Are we willing to watch our tax dollars wasted, as scam artists and profiteers cash in?
Public schools are not a partisan issue. People of all political parties serve on local school boards.
Trump’s plan is a radical plan, not a conservative plan. Conservatives don’t blow up traditional institutions. Conservatives conserve.
Now is the time for people of good will to stand together on behalf of public schools, democratic governance, and schools that serve the community.