If there’s anyone out there who still thinks the Donald Trump presidency won’t be so bad for separation of church and state, chew on this: Trump offered the job of Education Secretary to Jerry Falwell Jr.
That’s right: Trump was prepared to turn the U.S. Department of Education over to a biblical literalist who would have been absolutely unqualified for the job.
Falwell does run Liberty University, a large conservative Christian college in Lynchburg, Va. He inherited it from his father. But this hardly means the younger Falwell is prepared to oversee the American public school system, which serves more than 50 million children.
Imagine a man whose university runs a Center for Creation Studies that aims to “research, promote, and communicate a robust young-Earth creationist view of Earth history” overseeing public education in America.
Under Falwell Jr., this might have been a science text for public schools.
Imagine how Falwell would have handled the rights of LGBTQ students in public schools. Imagine him promoting “Christian nation” fake history penned by his pal David Barton.
And make no mistake, Falwell would have had the leverage to interfere in all of these issues. Public education in the United States is largely funded at the local level, usually through property taxes. But the federal government contributes some aid as well. It’s hard to pin down the precise figure because the feds spread it out over a number of programs, but one estimate by The New York Times put federal education spending at more than $107 billion annually.
Falwell told the Associated Press that Trump offered him the top job at the Education Department when the two met in New York City after the election. Reportedly, Trump wanted Falwell to commit to at least four years, which Falwell wasn’t willing to do.
But Falwell continues to imply that he’ll have some role to play in the Education Department, and the education secretary Trump did name, Betsy DeVos, is known primarily for promoting private school vouchers. The country may have dodged Falwell, but the appointee we got isn’t much better.
Public education in the United States faces significant challenges. Adequate funding is essential, as is building community support for the schools.
A strong leader could call on Americans to rally around their public schools, since they are the only educational institutions that by law welcome children of all religions, races and socio-economic backgrounds.
By offering important positions to people like Falwell and DeVos, who not only don’t prioritize public education but seem to disagree with its core mission, Trump has exposed his true colors: We can expect at least four years of an Education Department that focuses on private institutions while the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children are an afterthought.