Chalkbeat describes President Donald Trump’s Congressional speech Tuesday night, an address in which the President reprised Arne Duncan and called education “the civil rights issue of our time.” Then President Trump made a leap to school choice—basically calling school choice the civil rights issue of our time: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time. I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.” It’s an interesting definition of educational civil rights, to say the least.
In his speech to Congress, Trump then hinted at the type of school choice he is likely to propose, though there was no indication when he and his Secretary of Education are likely to move forward with such a plan. Trump had brought a young, Florida woman to the gallery, a young woman who participated years ago in Florida’s tuition tax credit program—a program Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said she admires. DeVos has served on the board of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which developed the model for this program.
Here is what Trump said about his guest last night: “Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather. As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.”
This blog has traced the interest of President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos in tuition tax credits here and explained all forms of vouchers (including tuition tax credits)—public tax dollars diverted to pay students’ tuition in private schools—here.
Back when Arne Duncan was education secretary, a good indication of the Obama administration’s plans for education was in the policies promoted by the Washington, D.C.—Democrat-leaning—think-tank, the Center for American Progress. Perhaps we can see a similar dynamic operating on Tuesday night, as one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the education ideas in Trump’s speech was the American Federation for Children, the huge lobbying organization—founded, funded, and formerly chaired by Betsy Devos. The American Federation for Children has promoted the privatization of education through vouchers, tuition tax credits, and expansion of charters in a climate free of “bureaucratic” regulation.
Here is the statement, released on Tuesday evening by John Kirtley, vice-chairman of the American Federation for Children: “We were pleased to hear the President offer strong support for school choice in his address to the joint session of Congress tonight… Now is the time to act with bold conviction. We urge school choice advocates to work with Congress and the Administration to pass a federal tax credit to encourage charitable giving to state non-profits who will provide scholarships for eligible children to attend the school of their parents’ choice… I was incredibly happy to see Denisha Merriweather sitting in the Executive Gallery with First Lady Melania Trump at the joint session tonight. As the President mentioned in his speech, Denisha used a tax credit scholarship in Florida and has become a true American success story due to the program. She exemplifies the power of choice in education.”
Despite that 90 percent of American children and adolescents attend public schools and that many of those students have their own success stories, we are being drilled by the Trump administration on a one-note school policy—freedom of choice for parents. Personal freedom and privatization are the key ideas. There seems to be no recognition that public schools are the system most likely to be able to serve the needs of the whole range of our children. Nor do Trump and DeVos appear to worry about protecting the rights of children by law and through transparent, democratic governance—protections absent from private schools. It is ironic that the people in charge of the federal department designed to support the education of all American children are endorsing a lifeboat strategy—vouchers, tax credits and charters—that by its very structure can serve only some students. Public schools, of course, are required by law to serve all students.
On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos herself attracted enormous attention in the press for her awkward and ignorant effort to promote her one-note education idea when she complimented historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—as exemplars of school choice. She failed to indicate that she has any real understanding of the role of these institutions during a period of our history when black students were entirely shut out of higher education at all white colleges and universities.
Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, DeVos’s home state, responded: “Let’s be clear, HBCUs were started because of Jim Crow laws. Black students did not ‘choose’ HBCUs over the all-white colleges—they were barred from attending due to their race. This statement by Mrs. DeVos reveals either a stunning ignorance of history on the part of the person tasked with overseeing our nation’s education system, or an inability to acknowledge our nation’s shameful history of racial discrimination in education, both public and private… Yesterday’s attempt to whitewash the stain of segregation into an argument for privatizing our public schools is perhaps a new low in her current position.”