Difficult Choices: The Trump Administration and the National Battle for the Future of American Education

One for the History Books

When the history of the Trump Administration is finally recorded, several chapters will be reserved for big-ticket fights over the administration’s policy proposals: the Muslim ban, tax cuts, and child separation policy. All have consumed vast amounts of media coverage and dominated weeks of the national conversation. But there is one under-covered fight in which the Trump administration has been a major force, one with vast implications for the future of the United States, especially of its young people: the national battle over the future of public education.

A Paradigm Shift

You would be excused if you missed the rollout of the administration’s yearly Department of Education budget proposal, as it came amid a veritable ocean of Mueller-related coverage. The little coverage there was largely focused on the proposed elimination of federal funding for the Special Olympics, which was widely criticized from across the political spectrum. It was only the latest in a series of hapless Congressional testimonies by Education Secretary Betsy Devos. While the President quickly backed away from the proposed cuts, along the way further humiliating Devos, the approximately $18 million that the Special Olympics stood to lose was a small fraction of the more than $8.5 billion in cuts proposed in this year's education budget. The cuts include the complete elimination of 29 programs, including student loan forgiveness for teachers, aid for teacher salaries and professional development, and deep cuts in after school programs and programs aimed at providing students with a more well-rounded education. Contrasted with such steep cuts is the budget’s headline proposal is the creation of a $5 billion school voucher program, which would give federal funds to students to attend private and religious schools, an approach that has been pioneered by state and local programs with mixed to negative results. The school voucher program mirrors a smaller but still noticeable $60 million increase in federal grants to charter schools. The budget proposal is nothing less than the advocacy of a paradigm shift in American education policy away from federal aid, teacher unions, and public schools and towards more state funding and the subsidization of charter schools. Such an approach is perhaps not surprising for an administration in which the President, the Secretary of Education, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Mick Mulvaney: the administration’s chief budget official and current acting chief of staff), all attended private high schools. Despite its size, however, the budget proposal is but a shot across the bow in a larger war over the future of American education policy, one that played a vastly underappreciated role in the 2018 midterm elections yet is poised to play a far greater one as we roll into 2020.

Central to this war are two main dynamics: first, what role unions should play in determining education policy and organizing educational employees, and second, the extent to which funding should be directed to traditional public schools as opposed to being siphoned off to private, religious, or charter schools.

2018 in Education Review

In the last two years, the battle over unions has come to be defined by two diametrically opposed forces: legislation and court decisions that aim to weaken teacher unions, and union-driven teacher walkouts that aim to improve funding for both public schools and teacher salaries. On the legislation front, 28 states and Guam have passed so-called “right to work” laws, which make union membership optional for workers in a union workplace. Such laws are widely recognized to weaken both the political and bargaining power of unions. Opponents of unions won a major victory last year when a 5–4 Supreme Court majority, urged on by the Trump Justice department and joined by a Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice, ruled in Janus v. AFMCSE that public employees, including teachers, were not obligated to pay union dues, essentially making public schools in all fifty states right-to-work.

Despite, or perhaps in reaction to decades of laws weakening unions and cutting public school funding, teachers have begun to fight back with protests and walkouts. This started with West Virginia in February 2018, with walkouts following in more than half a dozen states and numerous cities across the country (most recently Los Angeles) winning increases in school funding and teacher pay. As demonstrated by the range of political territory they cover, from West Virginia to California, teacher walkouts are not limited to blue territory. They appear to be having a political impact as well, ranging from the Kentucky House Majority Leader who lost his Republican primary to a teacher to states like Kansas where pro-education candidates won the governor’s mansion. The debate over the future of public education has played out in Democratic primaries as well, with a pro-charter school Super PAC funded largely by Silicon Valley billionaires dumping more than $7 million into supporting former Los Angeles Mayor and charter school supporter Antonio Villaraigosa in his gubernatorial primary against Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who was backed by teacher unions (Newsom won both the primary and the general).

Onward to 2020

As all of the action of the last year makes clear, the Trump education budget proposal is a proxy for a broader battle over the future of the American education system that is playing out in states and cities across the country. With more teachers across the country considering walkouts and the ongoing fight over education funding and teacher pay playing out on the state and local level, the battle over the government’s role in public education will continue. And it will only intensify as we head into 2020, a presidential election year that will pit two diametrically opposed visions of the future of American education against each other. On the one side is the agenda proposed and carried out by the current administration: the gutting of teachers’ unions, deep cuts to federal funding to public schools, and the shifting of large amounts of other tax dollars away from public education to private, charter, and religious schools. On the other side is a Democratic party that, with the exception of a few members of its donor class, is firmly lined up behind public schools and strong unions for their teachers, a party in which supporting massive new federal investments in college affordability, teacher pay, and universal prekindergarten have become the norm. Either way, one thing is clear: the battle over the future of American education is not coming; it is here, and it is one worth paying attention to.

Eric Scheuch is an Op-Ed writer for the review and a Sophomore in Columbia College studying Political Science and Sustainable Development. He can be reached at eric.scheuch@columbia.edu.

EducationEric Scheuch