I thought that I would let the Betsy DeVos nomination pass without comment; after all, her unfitness is thoroughly documented, although the case has unsurprisingly been frequently misstated by the protesters assembled against her. However, even if Democrats were actually successful in their stand against her confirmation today, we could have expected someone similar to be nominated in her place. DeVos is not a nomination based on mere cronyism, but accurately reflects what we can expect from Trump's administration in the next four years in the realm of education. As a clearer picture of what we can expect from a Trump administration is beginning to emerge, it is worth our time to examine his education platform through his appointments, nominations, and his own words.
First let's look at what Trump said on the campaign trail, because if we've learned anything about Trump in the first days of his presidency, it's that he is making a concerted effort to fulfill many if not necessarily all of his campaign promises. For simplicity's sake I will simply link to the ontheissues.org page here, which will also serve to illustrate that Trump has been remarkably consistent in his position on education. Aside from the platitudes about not coddling children anymore, a few actionable themes emerge from the quotes. Trump wants to lower the cost of schools both for the government and for students. He wants to give people their choice of schools by encouraging charter schools, voucher programs, etc. He thinks education should be local, which means he wants to do away with Common Core and other Federal guidelines and regulations, give more power to states (he has said to individual school boards, but that is unrealistic), and consequently to drastically reduce the size and power of the Department of Education. That makes for a fairly consistent platform and one which is very realistic for him to implement, even moreso now that Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as our Secretary of Education.
This plan for education looks good on paper. Trump has made the excellent point that the Federal government should not seek to profit from student loans, and the fact that it currently does drives up tuition rates for universities. While I doubt that universities would ever voluntarily lower tuition rates just because they could, if he follows through on his promise to lower or do away with student loan interest rates, that is something that I think most of us can get behind. Likewise, a little competition might not be bad for the public school system. If public schools had to compete with well-run charter schools or private schools through a voucher program, it is conceivable that the result could very well be better education and higher pay for good teachers. And like many who have seen and worked up close and personally on the administrative side of the public sector, there is a part of me that finds the layers and layers of regulations and statutes governing school districts to be ridiculous and limiting. Surely if we deregulate education and let people just focus on teaching our kids, America will be the better for it (or so the thinking goes).
I will not take issue with Trump wanting to take the profit of student loans away from the government (given his history with Trump University, we can assume he is still fine with profit from education in general). If he's serious about lowering the costs of higher education and the crushing debt it puts an increasing number of young Americans into, then more power to him. I do have issues, however, with his theories on school choice and deregulation, and more specifically on their combination in practice.
This is where we will return to Betsy DeVos. The real objections to DeVos should not be those which I have seen the most from protesters: that she never taught a class or got a degree in education. I have yet to meet the teacher who I think should be involved in school administration; teaching and administration are two very different skill sets. Rather the objection should be that she embodies Trump's ideas about school choice and deregulation to the extreme. As this Washington Post article details, DeVos has a history of not simply supporting charter schools, but working to keep failing charter schools open even while she pushed for stricter regulations on public schools. While I have my doubts about how beneficial competition in and of itself can be for education (I think our higher education system provides a spotty-at-best test case), in order for it to work you have to allow for honest competition, and DeVos has not done that in Michigan. In fact, the situation in Michigan that has largely resulted from her lobbying efforts there show what a disaster results from charter schools becoming so freed from regulation that they cannot fail.
To be clear, charter schools can be an excellent alternative to public schools. The Harmony and YES school systems are excellent examples that have been highly successful in my home state, Texas, and KIPP schools have been extremely successful across the nation. Harmony Schools have even chosen to voluntarily meet the same regulatory standards of procurement that public schools in Texas are held to, even though they do not have to, in order to show that their dealings are above-board and focused on education. But for every Harmony or KIPP success story, there are stories of widespread corruption and failure in dozens of other charter schools who do not share the moral scruples or expertise of the successful schools. And while, as this article from DeVos' home state points out, public schools are arguably no cleaner on the whole than charter schools, the difference which they fail to mention is that public schools are held accountable for their improprieties by regulations to which charters schools are not subject. Public schools get audited every year and must account for the money they spend. All of the improprieties mentioned in that Michigan Capitol Confidential article resulted in jail time for the perpetrators. Meanwhile, though charter schools must be audited, the rules are much more lax and even when impropriety is found, often nothing can be done to correct or discipline those involved. Charter schools can be excellent alternatives to public school for students; they can also be an excellent source of income for con artists and the unqualified. They are not in themselves the answer to an ailing public school system, especially when those that fail or are corrupt are propped up such as they were in Michigan by Betsy DeVos.
There are good schools though, whether they are public schools, charter schools, or private schools, and many on both sides of the aisle, including Trump and DeVos, would say that all kids should have access to these schools if they want through a voucher program. Voucher programs have been in effect for some time on a very small scale, with mixed results. People seem to like it, but it has so far tended to be more expensive than simply funding public schools and effects on test scores seem to be at best only slightly better than test scores in regular public school programs, if indeed they have any effect at all.
There is a big difference, however, between a small scale voucher program for some under-privileged students in Milwaukee and the proposals that have been floating around since Reagan’s administration for a nation-wide voucher program, which DeVos espouses. If widely adopted on a national scale, vouchers could create an educational and logistical nightmare, especially in large cities. Typically suburban schools tend to do better than inner city schools. Overcrowding, both in the classrooms of suburban schools and on the mass transit to take kids to them, could become an immediate issue, with no quick solution. Highways and schools take years to fund and build, and the volatility of market which a large-scale voucher program would provide would make it nigh-impossible for schools to predict how many students they would need to prepare facilities and staff for to serve from year to year. Yes, more money would go to good schools and create competition, but expansion of staff and facilities doesn’t happen overnight. In the meantime, that good school will have to struggle to make do with over-worked teachers and over-capacity classrooms, bringing down the quality of education for everyone.
The problems don’t stop there for private schools who might take vouchers. Taking vouchers means taking federal money, and while a Supreme Court case in 2002 established that it was constitutional for vouchers to go toward religious educational institutions, it does not protect those institutions from strings being attached to that money. Sure, sending your kid to a very reputable Catholic high school might sound great while Trump is in office and cutting the Education Department down to size, but eventually Democrats will get back into office. And as religious hospitals have found, taking federal money means complying with the strings attached to it whether you like it or not. Vouchers could very well be a mechanism by which a liberal government could rein in some of the things they don’t like about religious education, affecting the religious liberty of whole institutions, not just the kids who are there on vouchers.
Having tackled some of the issues with school choice, let’s go back to the other platform plank that I find somewhat rotten: the drive to localize education by doing away with national standards and regulations. Trump has made it clear that he wants to do this for all levels and many aspects of education. He has said he wants to do away with Common Core and national incentive programs like No Child Left Behind. His nomination of DeVos signals that he likely agrees with her that (at least for charter schools) administrative regulations should also go. And his appointment of Jerry Falwell Jr. to an educational task force signals that he is at least open to the idea of doing away with or cutting back severely on regulations placed on higher education, most significantly Title IX regulations.
All of these regulations have serious issues and are in need, at the very least, of reform. Common Core has been the victim of some misrepresentation (it is not nearly as strict as it is made out to be by some of its more vocal opponents, and allowed states to opt out of Common Core in favor of their own standards). Indeed, there is certainly something to be said for encouraging states to determine a basic level of competency that all students should receive from public education. However, there is a reason that only 33 states still follow Common Core standards: the guidelines are too specific for such a large and diverse nation, the standardized testing involved in ensuring compliance with the standards is far too cumbersome, and the system is expensive. But doing away with the system in one fell swoop and leaving it to the states who were still using it to replace those standards with something of their own creation on the fly is a recipe for educational chaos. States seem to be slowly opting out as they develop their own standards at the moment, and continuing to allow them to do so seems a wiser course of action than a clean sweep with no warning or consultation.
Likewise, Title IX is deeply flawed, at least in its implementation. I will leave the debate about whether it is conceptually flawed for another time, but at the very least we have seen that it attempts by sticks what could be better achieved by carrots, at least in the realm of sports. By that I mean that it would be better to encourage schools to fund women’s sports with positive incentive programs rather than punitive quotas on men’s athletics. And Title IX is at best an inelegant tool with which to address the much more important issue of sexual violence on campuses. It requires universities to do something which they are ill-equipped to do: investigate alleged crimes, and particularly difficult-to-investigate crimes at that. The result has been injustice on the part of schools who ignore their responsibilities to the accuser and to the accused in an attempt to either fulfill the vague requirements of Title IX in whatever limited way they are able, or to skirt them. Flawed though it is however, Title IX does attempt to address real problems that universities undeniably have with rape, from interference with police investigations to the fact that in a small college community, the accused and accuser may be forced to interact regularly while an investigation is still pending. Title IX needs to be reformed, not done away with, and Jerry Falwell Jr. is not the man to make those reforms.
The problem that unites all of these planks of Trump’s education platform, even the ones I agreed with up above, is that they are simple solutions to complex problems. To illustrate: in contrast to the conflicting reports on the effect of pilot voucher programs, studies have shown unequivocally that parent participation in their child’s education has a direct link to how well their child does in school, regardless of background or income level. That is something that no amount of competition or deregulation can produce. It isn’t the whole story, but it is one of many factors that affect a child’s education, and one of those that the government, and specifically Trump’s government, seems to be ignoring. The eradication of regulations and oversight, the poison pill of vouchers, a Wild West for charter schools of the sort DeVos has implemented in Michigan—all of these are dramatic, sweeping gestures that Trump has indicated that he wants, and we have no reason to doubt that he intends to get them. Taken all together these measures are a recipe for educational chaos and rampant corruption, especially if they are implemented as quickly and sloppily as, for instance, the recent executive order for a travel ban on seven nations.
The bit about student loans is promising though. At least it would be, if Secretary DeVos had not been loaning money to a student loan debt collection agency before being nominated.