Today we mark the inauguration of a new U.S. President and a new administration. Public education is perhaps the quintessential American institution, designed to educate all children—helping them develop personally and forming an educated public. All indications are that President Donald Trump’s administration will set our society back by undermining public education.
A group of 175 deans of colleges of education and chairs of college departments of education has released a declaration of principles to remind us all what we must try to preserve as the new administration takes over federal policy and seeks to privatize education.
First, “U.S. public education policy should: Uphold the role of public schools as a central institution in the strengthening of our democracy... Students are not merely commodities or consumers, and when we treat education as a competitive marketplace fueled by privatization we set up a system that ensures that some win while many others lose…”
Second, “Protect the human and civil rights of all children and youth, especially those from historically marginalized communities. The federal government has historically played a leading role in advancing educational access and equity, as with the passage and enforcement of civil rights laws, targeted funding to address poverty and resource inequities, and appropriate supports for English-language learners and students with disabilities…”
Third, “Develop and implement policies, laws, and reform initiatives by building on a democratic vision for public education and on sound educational research… The U.S. educational system is plagued with oversimplified policies and reform initiatives that were developed and imposed without support of a compelling body of rigorous research or even with a track record of failure. We urge you to build on the ample evidence from the high-quality research that exists….”
Finally these academic professionals ask our society to support the work they do: “Support and partner with colleges and schools of education to advance these goals.” They are speaking for the need to sustain an education profession informed by academic research—teachers who know what the fields of psychology and sociology can tell them about their students and their communities—teachers who understand pedagogy and technique and motivation—teachers who have studied education philosophy and considered the ways in which education is more than mere job training.
These principles directly confront the priorities of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U. S. Secretary of Education. At her recent hearing, DeVos showed neither understanding of education policy nor respect for the Department of Education’s responsibility to protect the civil rights of the children who are descendants of slavery and Jim Crow, immigrant children and English learners, disabled children, and others we’ve marginalized throughout our history. While many of us might prefer that she forget about test-and-punish accountability and the punitive tone of federal policy since 2002, the civil rights protections we have managed to secure for children ought to be non-negotiable.
The most concise summary of the pitfalls of the Trump-DeVos pledge to privatize our schools is from political philosopher Benjamin Barber who warns that ultimately such policies will serve the privileged and further disadvantage the nation’s poorest children and their parents who lack power. While “parents’ right to choose” is the education motto of the new administration, Barber warns, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”(Consumed, p. 139) “Inequality is built into the market system, which too often becomes a race to the top for those who are wealthy and a race to the bottom for everyone else. Inequality is not incidental to privatization, it is its very premise. The implicit tactic employed by the well off is to leave behind those who get more in public services than they contribute as taxpayers in a residual ‘public’ sector… and throw in with those who have plenty to contribute in their own private ‘commons.’ The result is two levels of service—two societies—hostile, divided, and deeply unequal.” (Consumed, p. 157)
Barber concludes: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all… With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak…” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)
A retreat under the leadership of President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos will slow what has been a halting journey toward justice for American children. In March of 2000, the late Senator Paul Wellstone reminded the students at Teachers College, Columbia University, “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”