From one perspective, these are the worst of times for American public education. In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an “education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.55, or nearly $9 billion. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives.
Basically, it’s open warfare against public education in Washington.
However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education. These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to. So, things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education. One can imagine these ‘Special Assistants’ going from office to office, looking over shoulders and grilling confused bureaucrats. “What do you do?” Why does what you do matter?” And so on… I hear that morale is plummeting at the Department.
I just came from Washington, where some Republicans and Democrats told me that “Lamar Alexander is really in charge.” Mr. Alexander is the Republican Senator from Tennessee and a former Secretary of Education who, as Chair of the Committee that approved DeVos, pushed through her nomination even though her statements revealed her lack of qualifications and understanding. They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy.
So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.
And there’s a brighter side to all this. Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration. That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department….even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them.
Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that State officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts. That means they don’t have time to manage, let alone micro-manage, what’s going on in school districts.
So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts? Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?
Something is already happening out there. A few small districts have decided to devote one day a week to project-based learning, a small but significant step. Other districts are considering cutting back on testing. Maybe they’re doing it to save money, but so what: they’re doing it.
And speaking of local control, millions of students and parents are considering opting-out of some of the standardized tests that are approaching. When that happens again–for the third consecutive year–more of the rickety structure of federal and state control will topple, and the myth that Washington and State Departments of Education are in control will be exposed as false.
It’s time for progressives to speak up and take action. Reach out to the 75% of households that do not have school-age children and begin a dialogue about the goals of schooling. Do not hunker down to protect the status quo but talk about what’s possible. Can we build schools that look at each child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’ Can we use technology to create learning opportunities for children that build on their strengths and interests? Can we “Measure What Matters” instead of docilely accepting the standardized tests mandated by the powers-that-be?
Yes, we can.
Here’s another way to look at things. If Hillary Clinton had won the Electoral College, we’d be rehashing the tired old debate between the dominant quasi-Republican ‘reform’ that has been in the saddle for the past 16 years, and the weaker but persistent progressive wing of the Democratic party. Little in Clinton’s past suggests that she would have turned away from the ‘test and punish’ approach favored by Democrats for Education Reform, Teach for America, much of the charter world, and many politicians.
Had Clinton won, it would be ‘deja vu all over again,’ not a happy thought.
Yes, these are tough times for public education and its supporters, but this genuine crisis is also an opportunity. If you hear it knocking, answer the call.