Harmful Policies, Values, and Rhetoric

Forum: Trump and the Nation’s Schools

After little more than a year, President Donald J. Trump’s policies, values, and rhetoric have had a negative impact on our nation’s most vulnerable schoolchildren, particularly low-income students and students of color. This adverse effect is especially pronounced in five areas: oversight of federal education law; enforcement of federal guarantees of educational equity; budget and tax policy; the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy; and Trump’s embrace of bigoted rhetoric and action that challenges the identities of students who are racial, ethnic, or religious minorities.

Oversight of ESSA

While the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 provides states with more flexibility than its predecessor law, No Child Left Behind, the Trump administration has failed to enforce key provisions of ESSA that Congress carefully wrote into statute. For example, as pointed out last year by Republican John Kline of Minnesota, an ESSA co-author and former chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, “Arizona and New Hampshire recently passed laws that violate ESSA by permitting individual school districts to choose which assessments to administer.” Subsequently, the Department of Education (DOE) approved Arizona’s plan despite the violation. Approval of New Hampshire’s plan is still pending; however, none of DOE’s feedback thus far indicates that the state’s apples-to-oranges approach to comparing schools will pose an obstacle to the plan’s approval. This means that in Arizona, New Hampshire, and other states, different schools will be rated according to different indexes from a long list of possible options. Those of us who advocate for accountability as a means to expand educational opportunities for students from historically disadvantaged groups fear this federal policy approach will lead districts with poor student-achievement outcomes to select menu options that mask achievement gaps, which in turn will lead to a misdirection of resources and attention away from schools that most need them. This policy is simply illustrative. The administration has also approved or given encouraging signals to plans that violate clear ESSA statutory mandates to disaggregate student-achievement outcomes by race and family income and for English language learners and students with disabilities; to test all students in grades 3–8; and to assess at least 95 percent of all students.

Civil Rights Rollback

One of the most important roles of the federal government vis-à-vis U.S. public education is ensuring civil rights and educational equity, particularly when state and local governments have fallen short of meeting their responsibilities. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has rolled back the regular practice of the education department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of probing further into civil rights complaints for evidence of larger, systemic violations. This change means that students who are harmed by state and local civil-rights violations will be far less likely to see those abuses remedied unless they, their parents, or someone else acting on their behalf files a direct and formal complaint. In March, DeVos also eliminated an appeals process for students claiming discrimination and shortened the time period in which claimants can file evidence with investigators.

Trump administration officials have also undercut protections against sexual abuse on college campuses. Last summer, Candice Jackson, the acting head of the OCR, dismissed the severity of the issue by asserting that 90 percent of such allegations on campus “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation, . . . ‘” a statement for which she subsequently apologized. In September, DOE rescinded Obama-era guidance requiring more-stringent procedures for dealing with campus-based sexual assaults. The administration has also revoked rules and guidance dealing with other issues, including Obama-era protections for transgender students, and it is in the process of reviewing guidance aimed at preventing discriminatory school discipline on which, in testimony before Congress, DeVos said she would “defer to the judgment of state and local officials.”

Proposed Budget Cuts 

My forum partner points out that budgets are “aspirational documents.” It’s true that the budget drafts of any White House are usually ignored by Congress, but they reveal values and priorities. In its proposed FY2018 budget, the Trump administration called for slashing almost $10 billion in aid to K–12 and higher education, potentially resulting in the elimination of afterschool programs, substantial cuts to career and technical education programs, fewer supports for teachers, and instability of the Pell Grant Program. Trump did propose increases to the federal Charter Schools Program, but these relatively small boosts were overshadowed by the massive reductions he wanted. In fact, Trump’s cuts would harm even the public charter schools he purports to support: charters rely on Title II teacher-preparation grants to train their educators, and Trump wanted to eliminate the federal appropriation for that program. Given that he is now proposing to arm teachers, I must ask: why isn’t there enough money to train teachers to teach, when there’s suddenly enough to train them to be sharpshooters?  

In March, Congress finally passed a bipartisan spending bill that rejected Trump’s divisive and reckless spending priorities. None of Trump’s proposed education cuts were enacted—in fact, overall education funding saw a slight increase and, at the same time, important new investments were made in consensus education reforms including high-quality public charter schools.

Furthermore, the social safety net that supports vulnerable children and families is in jeopardy under the Trump administration. The ongoing efforts of the Republican-dominated House to slash Medicaid, dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and cut key social services programs would negatively affect school readiness and opportunities to learn for millions of students. More than one third of U.S. children, for example, rely on Medicaid for their health-care coverage and for screening and treatment of vision and hearing problems, developmental delays, and other conditions that, left unaddressed, can have an adverse impact on short- and long-term academic achievement. Medicaid also provides $4 billion to $5 billion in funding directly to public schools for services to students with disabilities and for vital support personnel such as school nurses and counselors. Research shows that children with access to Medicaid are more likely to graduate from high school and complete college than their peers who lack coverage.

In addition, Trump’s “starve the beast” tax policies are likely to pressure Congress to make deep education cuts in the future. The recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will reduce revenue, portending large decreases in federal discretionary spending. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the tax bill will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years. This deficit spending will ultimately require severe, across-the-board reductions in domestic programs, and Trump has already signaled, in both his proposed FY2018 and FY2019 budgets, that he favors billions in cuts to education. Furthermore, the new cap on federal income-tax deductions for individuals will jeopardize state and local education funding in states such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

Protesters gather on Capitol Hill to oppose Trump’s decision to end the Obama administration’s DACA policy.

DACA and Dreamers 

Trump also unnecessarily disrupted the lives of “Dreamers”—some 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children—and their families by ending President Obama’s DACA policy, setting an arbitrary deadline (March 5, 2018) for Congress to save the program and then breaking promise after promise to support a bipartisan legislative solution. Trump actually wound up opposing the proposal of the bipartisan group he had previously pledged to support, which likely determined its failure to garner the necessary 60 votes for passage in the Senate. While at this writing the courts have blocked the immediate end of DACA for current recipients, hundreds of young Americans nonetheless lose protections every day that Congress fails to act, and all Dreamers face an uncertain future.

Rescinding DACA disrupts learning environments across all levels of the U.S. education system. About 9,000 DACA K–12 teachers could be forced out of their classrooms. Students pursuing higher education will lose jobs that currently help them pay for tuition and living expenses, worsening the college dropout crisis. An estimated 200,000 citizen children whose parents have been protected under DACA will live with increased fear for their parents’ safety and may lose access to services if their parents avoid interactions with governmental agencies, including meetings with teachers and school administrators, for fear of deportation.

Climate of Fear 

In addition to the Trump administration’s direct policy actions, Trump’s bigoted and offensive rhetoric has assaulted our racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, implying that millions of American families and children are less than full members of our society. In a post-election report titled “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools,” the Southern Poverty Law Center presented results of a survey of more than 10,000 educators and school administrators and found that 80 percent of them reported observing heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students over the impact of the election on themselves and their families.

Trump has shown himself to be an unapologetic endorser of divisive racial, religious, and ethnic stereotypes, insisting for years that the first black president was born in Kenya and not the United States; labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals during the announcement of his presidential candidacy; attempting to ban Muslim immigrants; insinuating that a Muslim Gold Star mother had been forbidden to speak in public by her husband; and casting blame “on many sides” in the wake of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist violence. When the president of the United States gives credence to such pernicious labeling, it should be unsurprising that some impressionable young people throughout the country act to marginalize minority students, and that minority children may internalize these messages about their civic identity.

 Little to Embrace

The differences I have with the Trump administration are rooted in its policies and rhetoric, not its party affiliation. In our work at Democrats for Education Reform, my colleagues and I regularly interact with elected officials across party lines in efforts to advance positive academic outcomes for students. But Trump’s commitment to significant cuts in federal discretionary spending, a deep federalist ideology that tends to defer reflexively to state action (and is thus averse to federal civil-rights guarantees), and an embrace of bigoted rhetoric and action provide little substance for pro-student reform advocates to embrace. And his administration’s proposed investments in the federal Charter Schools Program do little to offset that damage. All students, but particularly low-income students and students of color, face many challenges in their pursuit of educational opportunity, both from within and outside the schoolhouse. So far, this administration’s policies have done nothing to help alleviate these challenges.

This article is part of a forum on Donald Trump and the nation’s schools. For an alternate take, please see, “A Strong Start on Advancing Reform,” by Lindsey M. Burke.

This article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Burke, L.M., and Jeffries, S. (2018). Trump and the Nation’s Schools: Assessing the administration’s early impact on education. Education Next, 18(3), 58-65.

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