What Is at Stake for Public Education in the Presidential Race?

Update:  No new Friday, November 6th post, as we all await the outcome of the election.  We stand on a precipice as we wait to see whether Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be elected or whether Donald Trump and Mike Pence will be re-elected. This post, from Monday, November 2nd, describes the implications of the presidential election for public education policy.

Look for a new post on Monday, November 9th.

I believe a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris victory  would provide a turning point in education policy.  We would, of course, be able to put behind us the failure of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to protect the public schools. But further, I hope the new administration would turn our national conversation about education away from more than two decades when federal policy makers have worried about accountability, efficiency and privatization but largely forgotten about seriously trying to support and improve the nation’s over 98,000 public schools..

If Joe Biden is elected President, I believe our society can finally pivot away from an artificially constructed narrative about the need to punish so called “failing” public schools, and away from the idea that school privatization is the key to school improvement. During Betsy DeVos’s tenure, our two-decades old narrative about test-and-punish education reform has faded into a boring old story fewer and fewer people want to hear anymore, but nobody has proclaimed an alternative.

How Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Have Damaged Public Education

In a profound book, American Amnesia, published in 2016, before Donald Trump was elected, two political scientists, Yale’s Jacob Hacker and Berkeley’s Paul Pierson describe precisely what Trump has undermined in our political system: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Government exercises legitimate coercion to protect our rights and freedom through regulations that protect us from individuals and corporations who would undermine our rights and endanger our collective safety. But the Trump White House has set about removing government protection of the common welfare.  Besides sidelining Anthony Fauci as the President tries to pretend COVID-19 will merely disappear, the President appointed David Bernhardt, an energy company lobbyist as Secretary of the Department of Interior;  Dan Brouillett, a lobbyist for Ford Motor Company as Secretary of the Department of Energy;  Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist for the coal mining industry as head of the Environmental Protection Agency;  Elaine Chao, who has become wealthy through her family’s interest in a major shipping company, as Secretary of Transportation;  Eugene Scalia, an attorney representing companies opposing labor unions, as the Secretary of Labor;  and Betsy DeVos, a lifelong promoter of spending public tax dollars for private religious education, as Secretary of Education.

Fortunately DeVos has not been entirely successful in her quest to promote private and religious schools and her attempt to undermine public education in America. She has tried to cut the budget of key programs in the Department of Education, but Congress has not permitted her to combine a mass of programs into one large block grant, and has protected at least minimal funding for the formula programs—Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children and special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Every year she has tried to insert into her department’s budget $5 billion for a federal private school tuition tax credit program she calls Education Freedom Scholarships. This year she even got Senator Tim Scott to introduce this program as a stand alone School Choice Now Act.  But Congress has eliminated it in every annual appropriations bill and refused to act on Scott’s bill this year. This year after Congress set up COVID-19 relief dollars under the CARES Act for public schools that serve many poor children, DeVos even tried to redirect a significant amount of that money to private and religious schools, but she was blocked by a federal court.

But like many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and department heads, DeVos has succeeded in damaging public policy by rewriting rules and guidance to reduce government oversight of bad actors. For example she refused to investigate complaints by students with enormous federal loan debts, students who had been ripped off by for-profit colleges which attracted students with fraudulent advertising and then left the students unemployable because their certificates and degrees turned out to be worthless. In some cases the students’ for-profit colleges and trade schools had folded and left them half way through their education with mountains of federal loan debt. Refusing to investigate such cases, DeVos’s department built up a huge backlog of complaints and finally rewrote the the Borrower Defense to Repayment Rule altogether. Congress tried to overturn DeVos’s new rule, but President Trump vetoed the Congressional action.  Today thousands of defrauded students continue to carry outrageous debts.

Sometimes she has simply done nothing to regulate or oversee bad programs.  The federal Charter Schools Program has been savagely criticized by the Network for Public Education for spreading billions of federal startup dollars to charter schools that either never opened or were subsequently quickly shut down. And criticism from NPE only adds to years of biennial reports from the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General, reports documenting lack of record keeping and failed oversight.  DeVos has done nothing to oversee and clean up this program.

She has also undermined important functions of the Department of Education such as the department’s Office for Civil Rights, charged with protecting students from violations based on discrimination by race, ethnicity, income, gender and sexuality.  She has significantly reduced comprehensive investigations of historic patterns of civil right violations when complaints are filed, failed to investigate accusations that some schools are overly assigning African American students to special education, failed to protect transgender students,  failed to protect the victims of sexual assault on college campuses, and failed to investigate and protect students in school discipline cases. On a significant scale, by failing to enforce federal regulations designed to protect students, DeVos’s department has failed to exert what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government.”  

During DeVos’s Tenure, Decades of Other Bad Policies Have Just Sort of Faded Out of the Conversation

On one level, however, Betsy DeVos has done us a favor. For two decades before Donald Trump took office, public education policy had fallen into a period of bipartisan technocratic neoliberalism. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s administration and the launch of the federal Charter Schools Program, followed under President George W. Bush by the omnibus bipartisan 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, federal policy in public education was transformed from its original mission to help public schools serve students in marginalized groups who had been poorly served by their state policies.

Then as computer driven policy expanded, large data sets documented the achievement gaps between privileged, mostly white students and African Americans. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) substituted  punishment—not enhancement and support—as the way to close the Black-White Achievement Gap. Standardized testing to create the data sets by which schools across the country would be rated and ranked were mandated for every student every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  Schools were expected to raise scores for all students in every demographic group every year to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient.  Schools falling behind the schedule were sanctioned: their teachers and principals would be fired; they’d have to institute a new curriculum; or they would be turned into charter schools or managed by large Charter Management Organizations.  When President Barack Obama, a Democrat, took over, test-and-punish continued. Schools would compete for Race to the Top money and to qualify to enter the competition, they’d have to promise to adopt standards (which became the Common Core), expand the number of charter schools, turn around failing schools using all the old punishments under NCLB, and evaluate teachers by students’ test scores.

But the test-and-punish school reform juggernaut did not improve public schools according to the test scores universally adopted as the measuring stick. Just last week, Diane Ravitch reported that in the latest administration of the one national test which everybody trusts because it cannot be gamed in the competition for state-by-state accountability, the National Assessment of Education Progress, 12th graders’ scores have not risen since 2005.

In the four years since Betsy DeVos took over, we have heard less and less about school reform, and Adequate Yearly Progress and all the rest.  Actually under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, which reduced the federal role but still requires states to submit an annual plan to accomplish the old NCLB goals, DeVos’s staff have been approving the plans which the states keep on submitting, but hardly anybody I know is tracking this. The narrative has just kind of died out as DeVos has ramped up her own narrative about publicly funded vouchers for private and religious education.

How Would a Biden Administration Transform the Narrative about Education in America?

If Joe Biden wins tomorrow, I am looking for leadership to drive the narrative back to where it belongs: improving access to opportunity in America’s public schools. In Biden’s education plan: there is no endorsement of standardized testing, no endorsement of holding schools accountable according to their aggregate test scores, and no support for vouchers for private and religious schools. Biden has not said he would end the federal Charter Schools Program, but he has pledged to better monitor and oversee charter schools.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan is all about our system of public education. He emphasizes the importance of expanding the opportunity to learn for every child regardless of race, ethnicity, family economics or the child’s primary language.  Biden’s plan proclaims: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals. Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden pledges to add 300,000 new full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, and he pledges to restore  justice for students by strengthening enforcement of regulations by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman led with this comment on how Joe Biden, if elected, is likely to repair what Trump has done to government itself and to domestic policy: “(I)f Democrats win big, I expect to see many of Trump’s substantive policies reversed, and then some. Environmental protection and the social safety net will probably end up substantially stronger, taxes on the rich substantially higher, than they were under Barack Obama.”

If Joe Biden is elected President, I also expect him to begin repairing a quarter century of neoliberal expansion of school privatization as well as two decades of failed test-and-punish school accountability. If he is elected, I expect Biden to restore racial and economic justice in public schools as the central mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

3 thoughts on “What Is at Stake for Public Education in the Presidential Race?

  1. The mask has come off America and the world now sees us as we really are. Trump has preached a never-ending “artifically constructed narrative” about failing public schools, immigrants are murderers and rapists, climate change is denied, Democrats are socialists and communists, the coronavirus is a hoax, medical providers are frauds, racism doesn’t exist in our country, government regulations are killing jobs, and Trump’s “artifically constructed narrative” goes on and on and on. Trump has pulled the bandage off the skin of America to reveal just how many millions in this nation are bullies and hateful and racist and cruel. Christian America has become a synonym for white supremacists who are the antithesis of Christ. The election will determine if we can begin to build back a better United States, or whether the drug of individualism that Trump and the Republican Party have injected into so many Americans is fatal to our democracy. Our standing in the world is irreparably torn asunder.

  2. Pingback: Jan Resseger: What Is at Stake Tomorrow? | Diane Ravitch's blog

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