The Truth Behind the Trump Education Agenda and How It’s Hurting Students

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 11, 2020

For the past three years, those opposed to public school choice in general, and public charter schools in particular, have tried to tie Democrats who support public school options to President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The theory goes that public charter schools are part of a far-right agenda to privatize education. That theory was, at best, flawed from the get-go. Recent events have rendered it demonstrably and unequivocally false.

At last week’s State of the Union, President Trump announced the awarding of a private school scholarship to a Philadelphia elementary school student, opining that “[f]or too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.” It later came out that it was not Trump, but his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who had put up the scholarship money. Over the following days, the real story became even weirder and more telling.

As it turns out, the student “beneficiary” of Betsy DeVos’ “award,” Janiyah Davis, is enrolled in a high-performing public charter school in West Philadelphia, the Math, Science and Technology Community Charter School (MaST). Janiyah and her mother, Stephanie, accepted Trump’s invitation to attend his SOTU address without knowing the purpose for which they were being brought there. While she hasn’t yet decided what to do with the scholarship offer, Janiyah’s mom said “I don’t view MaST as a school you want to get out of at all. I view it as a great opportunity.” In fact, MaST was awarded a “Blue Ribbon School” award for high performance by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017, Trump and DeVos’ first year in office.

The kicker came this week when Trump announced his plan to repeal the federal Charter School Program (CSP) as part of an overhaul of the U.S. Department of Education contained his FY 2021 budget plan that would cut $5 billion in federal education spending. The primary beneficiary of these cuts? A roughly equal amount for private school scholarships. As Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, concluded: “From this budget proposal, it’s clear that for them it’s really about private school choice rather than public school choice.”

Truth be told, the evidence for Trump and DeVos’ interest in private over public school choice is vast and longstanding. In her role as a philanthropist and activist, DeVos was a key player in bringing a charter school sector to Detroit based on private, for-profit, fly-by-night operators that was an out-and-out disaster for Motor City students and parents and bore little resemblance to the high-performing, non-profit public charter school sectors in places like Boston, Newark, Washington, D.C., and Denver. These differences were cited by an under-recognized group of Democratic Senators during the fight over DeVos’ nomination.

DeVos further solidified her preference of private over public education during her term. The most notable instance came at a Brookings Center event that named Denver as the top school-choice district in the nation. To the surprise of her hosts, DeVos dinged Denver, despite its high performance, for not offering private schools among its menu of choices. In response, then-Denver Superintended Tom Boasberg fired back that, “We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter. A core principle in Denver and one of the main reasons we rank No. 1 nationally in school choice is that we ensure equitable systems of enrollment among district-run and charter schools, where all schools play by the same enrollment rules and all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability system. We do not support choice without accountability.”

At my organization, Education Reform Now (ERN), we support public school choice options that are free to families, have strong accountability, and have proven to increase equitable outcomes for students. We do not support the for-profit privatization espoused in the Trump agenda.

It’s not lost on us, or others, that Trump and DeVos have suddenly aligned with public charter naysayers on the far left like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in calling for eliminating CSP—limiting public school options that disproportionately benefit low-income students and students of color.

At ERN, we hope recent events make clear to objective observers that Trump and DeVos are not, and really never were, public charter school champions and that public school choice that includes public charter schools have nothing to do with a far-right agenda to privatize education.

Help protect CSP—take 60 seconds to ask your Representative to stand up to Trump and protect a parent’s right to choose a high-quality public education for their child. Email your Representative here.

Charles Barone is the Chief Policy Officer at Education Reform Now.