In his State of the Union Address, Trump took a swipe at what he called “failing government schools.”
Most of us use the term “public school” or talk about “public education,” as we refer to institutions set up by, for, and of the people.
Trump, of course, is talking about public schools, but his choice to re-name them “government schools” is consequential. This phrase is not aimed at making public schools appear as institutions central to supporting the public good, to undergirding any hope for equality and freedom in this country, and to enabling the vast majority of Americans to access education. Rather, he makes these schools sound repressive and imprisoning, not enabling and liberating. (And I’m not suggesting there aren’t issues of gross inequality in our public school system.)
Certainly, the phrase “government take-over” is never used positively, as when opponents of, say, universal healthcare decry a “government take-over” of the healthcare system.
In short, substituting the adjective “government” for “public” can make any institution sound like a top-down, inefficient messy operation. Sadly, these are just the connotations the word has become saddled with over time, deserved or not.
And in many cases, it is not deserved. Remember when Tea Party activists used to wave signs demanding “Keep your goddamn government hands off my medicare”? People loved their government-run healthcare; they just didn’t know it because the right wing has trained so many Americans reflexively to hate government (even when the right wing controls it!) and automatically see it as the enemy and as inefficient.
Indeed, the world had been turned upside down for these Americans, as they protested against their own interests, railing against a government that administered the very program they wanted.
The same is true in the case of Trump referring to “failing government schools.” The phrasing is designed to get folks on board with defunding the public schools on which most Americans depend, promising them more “choice” and better schools.
But what’s really behind Trump’s words?
Let’s listen and then unpack. Here’s what he said Tuesday night:
“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” Trump said. “Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”
The solution is to pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, legislation proposed by Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and endorsed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. This act would provide $5 billion worth of annual tax credits to encourage individuals and businesses to donate to nonprofit scholarship funds. Families could apply for these funds to send their children to private and religious schools or potentially other kinds of vocational training or certification.
But what’s really behind this proposal? Why not actually have not just “government run” schools but schools that are actually sufficiently—and why not lavishly?—“government funded”?
We can’t separate Trump’s call for an “inclusive society” and attack on public education from his call for what he calls “religious liberty,” which is intimately linked to Attorney General William Barr’s and DeVos’s agenda of dismantling the division between church and state, imposing a right-wing Christian worldview on public institutions (or eliminating them), and de-funding the public sector.
Compare what Trump said in last Tuesday’s address to what Barr said in a speech last October at Notre Dame’s law school.
“My administration is also defending religious liberty, and that includes the constitutional right to pray in public schools,” he said. “In America, we don’t punish prayer. We don’t tear down crosses. We don’t ban symbols of faith. We don’t muzzle preachers and pastors. In America, we celebrate faith, we cherish religion, we lift our voices in prayer, and we raise our sights to the glory of God.”
Here’s Barr, enumerating what he sees as the secular assault on “religious liberty”:
“The first front relates to the content of public school curriculum. Many states are adopting curriculum that is incompatible with traditional religious principles according to which parents are attempting to raise their children. They often do so without any opt out for religious families.
Thus, for example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching. Similar laws have been passed in California and Illinois. And the Orange County Board of Education in California issued an opinion that “parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation may not excuse their children from this instruction.”
What Trump and Barr mean by an “inclusive society” and by “religious liberty” is the right, for example, to exclude LGBTQ people—their history, reality, and culture—from the curriculum because this body of knowledge is “incompatible with traditional Christian teaching.” Religious liberty means repressing, indeed eliminating, ways of being right-wing Christianity cannot tolerate.
And, as I’ve written elsewhere, the entire “school choice” movement does not actually provide choice. It gives the government the right to under-resource schools and let them decay, and then tell people that they have the “choice” to send their kids to better schools elsewhere in the city or to pay tuition, perhaps offset by some scholarships, at a private school. This is how the government frees itself of its obligation to fund public education.
And, as we see in my hometown of Chicago, which boasts of many excellent and well-funded public schools, the schools that are under-resourced and left to decay are primarily in neighborhoods populated by African Americans and Latinos. Let these people “choose” the burden of traveling outside of their communities to access education.
We don’t hear folks in the wealthy suburbs or those who send their kids to the top public schools in Chicago (the top three high schools in Illinois are Chicago Public Schools) complaining.
Government schools work just fine when they are actually government funded.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.