A strong educational system is the bedrock of a healthy democracy. There is a corollary to this fact: A poorly educated public is more likely to be tempted by tyrants, more easily seduced into believing that avarice, greed and consumerism are virtues, and will more readily betray the common good. In many ways, an educational system that does not encourage critical thinking and speaking truth to power is doing the work of authoritarianism.
It is then no surprise that DonaldTrump and the Republican Party want to destroy America's public education system and view learned expertise with contempt. To accomplish this goal, conservatives and their allies across the country have targeted public education for budget cuts and "privatization" -- with the latter being a means of transferring public goods and money to the coffers of the richest Americans.
Trump's Cabinet is comprised of individuals who (of course) share his desire to demolish the commons and reduce the government to rubble. Trump's Cabinet is also rife with conflicts of interest: Many of his handpicked inner circle of bureaucrats and advisers are able to use their positions to financially enrich themselves by acting against the public interest. Contrary to his campaign promises, the "swamp" has not been drained. It is an overflowing sewer.
Trump and the Republican Party's war on education is but one battle on a larger front that intersects with health care, the social safety net, economic justice and the very idea of a humane and just society. If one of these pillars of a good and healthy democratic society can be brought down then the others will almost certainly follow.
Ultimately, Trump, his party, the right-wing media and today's movement conservatives en masse reject the inherent value of learning and a proper education as anathema to the idiocracy and kakistocracy (as well as the Christian fundamentalist regime) they want to inflict on the American people.
How can public education be saved in America? What role does Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos play in the crisis facing America's public schools? Why do so many Americans believe in the false promises and lies of school privatization and other neoliberal so-called reforms? How are strong American public schools essential for a strong democracy and robust economy?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.
How does the national crisis that is the election of Donald Trump connect to education?
We didn't get here just on Election Day and we didn't get here just on Inauguration Day. I think this is the product of decades of rigging of the economy and our political system by the wealthy. Consider the Citizens United decision. Corporations have wide latitude to do whatever they want to do, whereas workers do not. There has been an intentional rigging of economic and political power. During a period of deindustrialization, globalization and automation where workers have really borne the brunt of it, you see stagnant wages and retirement insecurity.
In the aftermath of the last recession -- in particular with people who voted for Obama twice but didn't vote for Hillary -- [those people] were saying, “What have you done for me? You talk about how important our rights are and equality of life is for my family, but what have you done for me?” It opens up the frustration and the anger. You saw it in terms of what Bernie [Sanders] was saying. You saw it in terms of what Trump was saying. That frustration and anger opened people up to giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, because he ran as a populist even though he is now governing as an elitist.
Trump won because of his sexism and racism and not despite of it. Again, the talking heads and the so-called "smart people" got that so fundamentally wrong ...
I don't know if Trump won because of it or despite it. But I know Trump used racism and sexism to create fear. I know he used it in a way that gave people permission to wear their biases out in the open. I do not believe that people are inherently bigoted in the United States of America. Maybe I'm crazy or I'm too generous of spirit, maybe I'm just too spiritual, but I do believe in the inherent good of people. I'm not saying that everyone is good and that we don't see bias and bigotry in American society, but I believe Trump gave people permission to voice their anger and their fears as opposed to what most presidents do, which is to move us to our higher angels.
Help me puzzle through this one. A healthy public is economically productive. Having an educated public helps the economy. Yet there is a constant assault on teachers unions, any effort to make college accessible,and on our health care system by Republicans, conservatives and neoliberal policymakers.
We are talking about long-term investment in a country versus short-term exploitation. There is a long-term investment where if you invest in people’s wellness, it's going to pay huge dividends later on. If you invest in people’s education where they have a high school diploma, they have a college diploma, they have the skills and knowledge to have a sustainable future, ultimately it is an investment in believing in the collective good, which is a word we have not actually used since FDR and then [Lyndon] Johnson. We are actually stronger together, and none of us can do this alone. There are billionaires and millionaires who say, “Oh no, I did it by myself. I did it by myself.” They become takers and want the short-term profits. Long-term investment makes a society stronger.
How did teachers become the enemy in this country?
If you actually talk to people, they will tell you that they love their teachers and their local schools. We just completed a poll where three quarters of the respondents thought that the DeVos-Trump budget cuts were horrible. These respondents also told us they think that schooling should not be commodified and that we should invest in things that help children. The American people really don't want to cut public schools in order to invest in charters or vouchers. At the end of the day teachers and labor unions became the enemies of the rich because they did not want to share their wealth with a middle class. As a result, what you see is a concentration of wealth in the rich, a huge gap between rich and poor, and a smaller and smaller and smaller middle class.
With a concentration of wealth and political power, the attacks have intensified on the two institutions -- public education and the labor movement -- that are anchors to broad-based prosperity and help create power for working folks and their kids. Public education is the opportunity agent for children. The labor movement is the opportunity agent for their parents. That is why I'm not surprised that the trickle-down jokesters fight against unions and public education. With us they get a double whammy: They can fight against public education and they can fight against unions.
Donald Trump ran on a promise to "drain the swamp." Yet he appears to be violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution and running the presidency as a financial criminal enterprise. Trump has also put gangster-capitalist plutocrats in Cabinet-level positions who actually want to destroy the departments they are leading. Betsy DeVos, who leads the Department of Education, is a clear example of this. How did someone who doesn't value public education become Secretary of Education?
Who knows? This administration does not follow norms and they do not follow what we have come to expect from the rule of law.
I've never seen what we have right now where a president of the United States of America and many in his cabinet can use all the attributes of American governance against the checks and balances of American government. You see it with DeVos, who is the most ideological anti-public education person to ever be nominated or confirmed to that position. She has actually advocated for the worst per-capita budget cuts for kids who are vulnerable or poor that we've since Reagan. DeVos also wants the worst budget cuts in raw numbers ever. Who is fighting for the predatory lenders rather than the borrowers in terms of student loan debt? Who sides against transgender children? Who sides against girls in colleges who have been assaulted? Who is willing to say over and over again the discrimination laws of the federal government do not need to be applied to private schools or to vouchers? Betsy DeVos.
DeVos also believes that the only thing that is important is choice -- not accountability, not transparency, not the ability to have a system of equity for children in America. I've never seen someone in this position who believes this.
In Michigan, DeVos and her husband did serious harm to that state's schools by pushing for privatization. Their so-called reforms bankrupted the Detroit public schools. DeVos also made money off of the bottled water in Flint and established all these for-profit charters that have done terribly for kids. This is not what a secretary of education should be doing. She should be trying to help all children succeed, not hurt them.
The marketing of neoliberalism and privatization is so compelling on the surface. Who wouldn't want "choice"? Who wouldn't want "freedom"? Who wouldn't want "efficiency"? Who wouldn't want "opportunity"? What should the communication strategy be to reach out to parents and others who are being sold this false bill of goods and going along with it?
I think you have to work with community. Focus on children's well-being first and foremost. Engage in powerful learning, not testing. Make sure that kids have qualified teachers who know what they're doing and work collaboratively. Parents want schools that are safe for their kids, that are well supported and that have great teaching and learning going on. That's what parents want, and they want schools like that that are close to their homes, so their kids can actually get there quickly or without taking two or three buses all across the city -- assuming there is that kind of transportation.
For example, you can have magnet schools and different theme schools. There could also be career technical education schools. Frankly, you could have publicly accountable and transparent, democratically governed charters as long as they didn't take funding from one type of school to give to another. Choice in that kind of situation is human -- but you can't actually find ways to destabilize public schools and to use choice as a guise to undermine any kind of public system.
That's what the current voucher advocates have been doing. They take from public schools, they denounce them, they destabilize them, they defund them to the breaking point, they then criticize their deficiencies and say, "Let the market handle the rest." Frankly that's how democracy comes apart.
What do we actually know about the success rates and educational outcomes of public schools versus charter schools?
What we know is that socioeconomic measures are more important than virtually anything else. What we know is that public schools have gotten better, graduation rates have gone up, dropout rates have gone down and more and more kids are going to college. That's one thing we know. We also know that when you compare public schools and charters that basically they do the same. In some places some charters do a little bit better, in some places public schools do a little bit better.
But if you look at certain strategies that the proponents of private school choice have been propounding -- like vouchers or for-profit charters or online charters -- then the results are very different. For example, an analysis of the Washington, D.C., voucher program by the Department of Education found it had a negative effect on student achievement. The Louisiana voucher program has led to large declines in reading and math scores. Students in the Ohio voucher program did worse than children in traditional public schools.
Anywhere you look, you see that these non-accountable, non-transparent for-profit or private endeavors in education have done significantly worse for children than those that are accountable and transparent to parents and to school districts.
Maybe I'm a dreamer. Can we ever get to a situation in this country where public schools aren't funded by property taxes and where every student gets the same amount of resources? Will that ever happen?
I'm a dreamer too. I think we just have to keep fighting for schools that parents want to send their kids to and educators want to work at and kids are engaged in. I think that we need to finance our schools differently and that equity is really, really important. That we give the kids who have the least the most and that hopefully schools in Detroit are going to be funded like schools in Bloomfield Hills, or schools in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, will be funded like schools in Scarsdale.
Let's put a band-aid system in, between property taxes and then an income tax and then federal funding like Title One and other funding for kids that are most at risk or most vulnerable. I don't care if we put a band-aid system together, but I will keep fighting with it for an equitable system. I'll keep fighting for an excellent system. I will fight for a public system that helps all kids, and not one that values some and ignores most.