Commentary: Public education could face major threats in a Trump presidency

THE ELECTION of Donald Trump as president had an instantaneous effect when students in several schools became targets of racial and ethnic intimidation. High school students in Bucks County found swastikas and anti-gay slurs painted on walls; one girl found a note in her backpack telling her to "go back to Mexico." African-American freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania were sent text messages with the greeting "Heil Trump" announcing the next "N-Lynching." Immigrant and Muslim children wondered whether they would be rounded up like criminals and jailed or deported.

Whether or not the hate crimes continue, the long-term effects of a Trump presidency could cause irreparable harm to one of the bedrocks of our democracy: an open and equitable system of public education. Trump has made several pronouncements about wanting to break up the "government schools monopoly," viewing it through the only perspective he understands, that of a corporate CEO. His outspoken support for more charters and "school choice" would not be a complete departure from his two predecessors, whose No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives made millions for edu-vendors and testing companies while doing little to narrow the achievement gap for poor and minority students. Trump, though, talks of diverting billions of public dollars to private schools via voucher programs, despite overwhelming evidence that they have done nothing to improve educational opportunities for most students.

Apparently, Trump wants to replicate Vice President-elect Mike Pence's experiment in Indiana, where twice as many students attend charters than only five years ago. Nearly 60 percent of Indiana children are eligible for vouchers averaging about $4000 annually - which would not cover even half the tuition of most private schools, who, of course, are under no obligation to accept them. A recent study of the Indiana program conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that voucher students in private schools actually performed worse on standardized tests than those who remained in public schools.

Taxpayers across the country are already spending $1 billion for tuition to private and religious schools, including those in Cleveland, New Orleans and Milwaukee. Two-thirds of Wisconsin students receiving vouchers were not "rescued" from failing public schools, since they were already enrolled in private schools.

Trump's nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education signals his clear intention to ramp up the privatization of American's public schools. An heir to the Amway fortune worth an estimated $5.1 billion, DeVos has no degree or experience in education, did not attend or send her children to public schools, has never been elected to any local school board. She has been a major contributor to right-wing organizations, particularly those working to dismantle public education through voucher programs.

"It is hard to find anyone more passionate about . . . steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos," writes New Jersey taecher Mark Weber.

One impediment to the federal imposition of this free-market approach to public education could be the growing opposition on the local level. Voters in Montana, Utah and North Carolina elected strong pro-public education governors. Georgia's voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum, pushed by Georgia's Republican governor with heavy financial support from the Walton Foundation and other pro-choice groups, that would have forced public schools with low test scores to be turned over every year to private management or charter companies. An effort to unseat judges in Washington state who upheld lower court decisions that the state's method of funding charters was unsuccessful, despite millions poured into the campaign by Bill Gates and other corporate reformers.

And, in a stunning defeat for pro-privatization donors with deep pockets such as the Walton family, who poured $26 million into the campaign, voters in 241 of 255 Boston precincts rejected a charter expansion referendum by a resounding margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

The new administration would do well to understand that voters are rejecting failed privatization policies. Parents don't want to be forced to search for alternatives - they want fair and equitable funding for quality public schools in their own communities.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

philaapps@gmail.com

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