Public Schools Week is a time to celebrate the achievements of our public school system. But it’s also a time to be aware of the threats that the system faces. After all, to best defend the schools, you need to know who and what is out to undermine them.
With that thought in mind, here are five big threats facing public education in America today:
President Donald Trump: Trump is no friend of public education. He talks incessantly about private school voucher plans. Late last year, Trump hosted representatives from the private school lobby at the White House and promised them that a nationwide voucher plan was coming. Sure enough, Trump touted the plan during his State of the Union address and has added it to his budget. Under this scheme, an astounding $5 billion would be funneled into the coffers of private, mostly religious schools. While no one expects Trump’s budget to pass Congress as written, the fact that vouchers are so prominent in it is troubling.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: After being elected in 2016, Trump tapped DeVos, a Michigan billionaire with no educational experience, to lead the U.S. Department of Education. DeVos has a long track record of hostility toward public education. She’s a longtime booster of vouchers and even founded a voucher front group called American Federation for Children. DeVos, one of the few Trump cabinet appointees who has managed to hang on since 2017, is the one who came up with the voucher plan Trump included in his budget.
Private school lobbying groups: Representatives from religious denominations that sponsor private schools have been pushing to tap the public purse for years – even though they have enough money to pay for their own schools. They’ve agitated for voucher plans, going so far as to brazenly insist that they have some sort of “right” to taxpayer funds – even though these plans violate taxpayers' religious freedom, and even though these private religious schools don’t serve the entire public and are unaccountable to the people.
Anti-government extremists: The simplistic idea that anything the government does is bad has a powerful hold on conservative thought in America. Because public schools are a very common manifestation of a public, government-provided service, they’re a high-profile target for ideologues who favor privatization of as many public services as possible. (These activists often sneeringly refer to public schools as “government schools,” furthering the crude narrative that if something is run by the government, it must be bad.) Never mind that public schools educate the vast majority of American schoolchildren and serve the public good.
Millionaires looking to make a profit: In her new book Slaying Goliath, education writer Diane Ravitch focuses on a band of millionaires (in some cases billionaires) who have decided to make education “reform” a priority. The problem, Ravitch writes, is that these would-be reformers don’t have backgrounds in education and naïvely insist that “market solutions” from the business community can be applied to a public service like education. Too often, Ravitch writes, their end goal is privatization and shifting education from the public sector to the for-profit one, where, conveniently, some of them plan to invest and make a lot of money.
The public can play a role in stopping these opponents of public schools. Polls show that most Americans support public education, and, when given an opportunity to vote on vouchers directly through ballot referenda, people always vote these plans down. But all too often, we get stuck with vouchers anyway because candidates who push the plans assume public office. Candidates for the local school board all the way up to the presidency must be questioned about their support (or non-support) for our public schools.
If Americans want public schools to be a priority, they’ll have to make that abundantly clear – by word and deed. One action you can take right now – urge your legislators to oppose private school vouchers.
(PHOTO: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Credit: U.S. Department of Education)