During the State of the Union address a couple of weeks ago, Trump said a lot of things that caused my roommate and I (who were both watching on different laptops with earphones in as a failed attempt at productivity) to look up in confusion and anger. One of the comments that really struck me was, “no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”
I took issue with this because the president is in charge of our public education system. He has the power to address its problems; if he is giving up on schools, how can anyone expect them to get any better? It's also problematic to paint public schools with such a broad brush. There are countless schools that all operate in different ways and under different conditions. In 2019, the public school system educated almost 90% of all students attending K-12 institutions. They didn’t all go to one school.
I attended public schools my entire life before I came to BC. I loved my public school experience, and I am so grateful for the work that the faculty at my school put in. I would not be who I am today if I had not attended my school district. Nevertheless, I recognize that the system is flawed. When teachers are forced to use donorschoose.com to pay for classroom resources, that is a failure, but the teachers, students, and faculty are not to blame. This is a systemic problem, rooted in decades of mismanaged funding, red-lining, and budget cuts.
The use of the term “government school” is also problematic. This is a term often used by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other critics of public schools. It evokes the idea of the government interfering in the school system, which appeals to conservatives that are distrustful and want less government interference in all sectors. These critics are advocates of “school choice,” an initiative that Trump also promoted in his State of the Union speech following his comments on public schools. The idea is to provide vouchers that give parents access to public school alternatives. To an extent and when done well, this can provide students with opportunities, such as the ability to attend a vocational school. The problem, however, is that the type of school choice that DeVos is calling for would use public funds to help finance private education. This takes money away from public schools and leaves them with “stranded costs” that can add up to millions of dollars.
It seems strange that the Secretary of Education, who is tasked with advising the president on all matters relating to education, opposes public education and wants students to attend private schools. School choice programs would allow low-income and minority students to escape the “failing public schools” in their districts and attend superior schools. While I support this idea and think disadvantaged students should have the same access to opportunity as their wealthier peers, I just cannot get behind shipping students to different schools and giving up on the public education system entirely. This would be as if we decided that our healthcare system was broken (which it is), and so instead of sending patients to hospitals, we provide vouchers to send them to private doctors running clinics out of their houses. While charter and private schools are definitely less shady than this scenario, they are not held accountable in the same way that public schools are. These schools are able to have as many days off as they decide they need, teach what they want, and accept who they want. This program would also allow public funds to go towards private, religiously-affiliated schools, which goes against the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
Trump does not seem to care about this concept. He claimed that his administration is protecting “the constitutional right to pray in public schools.” The thing is, the Department of Education has made explicit the fact that public schools cannot prevent students from exercising their religious beliefs as long as it is not led by faculty or disruptive to other students. The fact that the Trump administration is focusing on protecting prayer in public schools (when it has never been threatened), calling those schools failing, and directing public funds to private and religious institutions seems problematic and indicative of his real agenda.
The education system in the US is incredibly complex and I will probably never fully understand it. What I do understand is that public schools are an incredibly important part of the lives of 90% of K-12 students and thousands of teachers and faculty members. Calling these schools failing while simultaneously taking away funding and preventing them from improving makes absolutely no sense. The Trump administration needs to do more to help public education in the United States, as we cannot just move students to different schools instead of solving the problem. America’s students and teachers deserve so much better.