Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has fit right in with the Trump administration, treating her government position as opportunity to enrich herself and serve her own narrow ideological interests at taxpayer expense.
We hear these days about the importance of the African American vote within the Democratic base, and rightly so. This base has played a key role in the Democratic primaries and, according to all indications, will play a key role in determining the Democratic presidential candidate.
Democratic candidates would also be wise as well as both humane and politically responsible, though, to pay attention to another population that, while historically endorsing Trump, has been nonetheless largely ignored by Trump, and is in dire need of attention and support. With some much needed attention from Democratic candidates, these voters could certainly make the difference necessary to defeat Trump in key states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
And it is also a vital matter of standing up for the equal rights of all and serving all constituencies, making particular efforts to serve the least visible among us in cultivating a democratic society and economy.
I’m talking about rural America, which isn’t, of course, exclusively white but which is nonetheless a white majority–and unquestionably, and more to the point, a forgotten one.
What is one of the latest key developments in terms of Trump turning his back on rural–and, really, working-class–America?
Trump’s Department of Education, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is up to its old tricks of cutting funding for public education and doing its best to make public education less rather than more accessible to Americans and making the nation’s public education system increasingly unequal.
And these cuts are targeted to hit rural America, a typical stronghold of Trump support, the hardest.
This time, through what Andrew Naughtie, reporting for The Independent, calls “an under-the-radar bookkeeping change at the Department of Education,” DeVos’s squad is setting up over 800 public schools across the nation’s primarily rural school districts to lose thousands of dollars per school in key funding. These cuts will cost these schools everything from reading specialists, to computers, to counselors, to language lessons for non-English speakers and more. Really, we are talking about the basics.
How can these under-resourced schools offer an education equal to what students receive elsewhere in America and prepare their students to compete in our economy and make their most meaningful contributions to American society?
And what’s more, as Erica L. Green reports in The New York Times, rural schools are already, according to advocates, “the most underfunded and ignored” in the country, even though they serve nearly one in seven public school students. These students, according to a report from the Rural School and Community Trust, “are largely invisible to state policymakers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems.”
What has happened exactly?
Well, public schools have previously been able to demonstrate they qualify for the Rural and Low-Income School Program by counting the number of students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals in order to determine poverty rates in the schools. The Department of Education, however, recently determined many of these schools that had been receiving funding had qualified erroneously, according to the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. To qualify for funds, schools must demonstrate 20% of their area’s students live in poverty. Using this census data is less accurate than actually using the data of who actually is attending a school.
The push-back against this policy move has been decidedly and firmly bi-partisan. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine indicated that this change would mean 100 of the 149 schools in Maine previously receiving funding from this program would no longer qualify, costing its schools $1.2 million in funding. Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana underscored that 220 of its most remote schools would lose some $400,000 in funding.
The Trump administration is not making life better for our rural populations, despite the hopes of advocates that it would, given these regions’ electoral support for Trump.
Alan Richard, for example, a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust, a non-profit advocacy group, told The New York Times, “Rural education advocates definitely hoped that a president elected, in part, because of rural and small-town voters would pay more attention to rural children. Even after the last election, with all the attention to rural America, little has been done to correct the inequity so many rural students face.”
Trump can be called out for his broken campaign promises, his outright lies, and his complete lack of concern for people in need.
The real question is whether or not Democrats will listen to, pay attention to, and take up the concerns and cause of our rural populations.
Senator Amy Klobuchar spoke to and about rural America. At times, Senator Kamala Harris did as well. Both, of course, are no longer in the running to be the Democratic presidential candidate.
Other than that, we don’t hear too much from Democratic candidates regarding rural America.
And it also needs to be said that there is a tendency in Democratic politics to demonize and dismiss poor white and white working-class people in America as racist and backward, as not on board with the progressive politics of change.
Maybe listening, paying attention to, and creating actual policy to address the needs of these Americans—as opposed to dismissing them—would go a long way towards courting these voters.
It would certainly go a long way toward addressing the severe class stratifications in our society and working-class issues overall.
Will Democrats take advantage of this opportunity to serve the needs of those Trump has abandoned, address them, and cultivate their support? Is the Democratic tent big enough? Can Democrats be big enough?
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.”
Back in 2004, Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? elevated the state as the textbook case of how the Republican party has been able to leverage a platform of conservative social values to sway the electorate to vote against its economic interests. Railing against abortion, affirmative action, big government, elitism, political correctness, and the like, Republicans surfed the wave of voters’ cultural outrage to election victories and then performed the bait-and-switch.
As Frank tells the story, these officials, instead of delivering on these platforms, engaged in unbridled deregulation and tax cuts, gutting the public sphere on which people depended, such as the educational system, and concentrating wealth in a fewer and fewer hands at the people’s expense.
In 2018, Kansas voters suddenly got “woke,” deciding they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. They elected Democrats Laura Kelly as Governor and Sharice Davids to the House of Representatives.
They felt the reality of Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s Kansas, where it became apparent that, lo and behold, massive tax cuts did not pay for themselves, much less increase state revenues, but rather resulted in severe austerity conditions. For example, the school year was shortened due to revenue shortfalls attributable to his criminally huge corporate tax cuts, exposing that these Republican fiscal and tax policies were not benefiting the economic health of the state or creating a higher quality of life. Brownback’s cuts to education were so egregious that they were deemed unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court. Bobby Jindal wreaked similar havoc in Louisiana back in 2016, granting massive tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations, leaving the state in economic chaos and facing massive cuts to education and basic social services. Republican Governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner followed the same playbook, razing the state’s public sphere in the name of restoring economic health by lowering taxes and destroying unions.
As I wrote back then, voters paying attention should have seen what the GOP had in store for them should a Republican win the presidency in 2016. And Trump has indeed realized this vision, lavishing exorbitant tax cuts to the wealthiest among us and to corporations, resulting in the accelerating deterioration of the economy as well as gutting the public sphere. His budget cut proposals as well as the
policies of his Education Secretary Betsy Devos
In an interview on Morning Joe after two nights of Democratic primary debates, Colorado Senator and Presidential candidate Michael Bennet pointed out that during those two nights not one question was asked of the twenty candidates regarding educational policy. Indeed, he continued, no question was asked of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential debates.
As a former superintendent of Colorado’s public school system, Bennet’s ears are sensitively trained to perk up for conversations about education, or to notice the absolute dearth of such conversation.
His observation is a keen one: education has simply fallen off of the political table of nationally important issues. Arguably, in the now famous exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden regarding the busing of children to enforce integration in the public schools, an issue of education reared its head in the debate. The issue at hand, though, more quickly became a discussion about racial politics rather than educational policy—or, perhaps more accurately, the discussion became one about Biden’s character, political record, perspectives on race, and viability as a candidate. Harris’s strategic pounce did not springboard into a larger discussion about education in the United States.
Certainly, it is notable– and distressing–that issues of education, most narrowly defined, were not addressed, leaving such vital issues as the quality—and equality—of our K-12 public education systems, college access and affordability, and the student debt crisis, unapologetically ignored.
What this lacuna also reveals, perhaps even more significantly, is the extent to which those dominating the political sphere do not understand education, most broadly defined, as playing a key role in transforming our larger culture and in helping to address in meaningful ways all the pressing challenges we face, from climate change, to national security, to income inequality, and so forth.
It’s not hard to see, for example, that educational policy needs to be a key part of moving us forward in the effort to address climate change. People of all generations need to be equipped with a basic critical scientific literacy to accept the reality of climate change, its consequences, and the urgency of addressing it. This means education must take place outside the narrow confines of K-12 and even college educational systems and must be part of a broader cultural initiative and transformation.
Let’s take the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election as an example of this point. Several candidates on the primary debate stage mentioned Russian election interference a chief threat to our national security.
None of the candidates discussed educational and cultural transformation as part of the solution in combating Russian interference.
And yet, as I’ve discussed elsewhere in the pages of PoliticusUsa, perhaps the most successful model on the globe for addressing Russian political interference has centered educational and cultural initiatives in the effort to counteract the proliferation of fake news and other propaganda efforts.
I’m talking about the example of Finland, a nation which, ironically enough, solicited American experts to help them design their educational initiative to defend their democracy against Russian intervention, and this initiative has now become a model for other nations seeking to similarly secure their political integrity.
Having declared its independence from Russia 101 years ago and sharing an 832-mile border with Russia, Finland has a long history of fending off Russian propaganda but has stepped up efforts in the digital age, especially after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
What has the effort been? One that emphasizes educating its citizens in critical thinking, which includes a widespread initiative to train not just students in schools but all residents, journalists, and politicians to recognize fake news and critically question false information purveyed to sow division.
Again, the educational initiative was not limited to schools. As social media attacks escalated in 2015, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, Eliza Mackintosh has reported for CNN, “called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information.” Chief communications officer for the prime minister’s office Jussi Toivanen, while echoing that “it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” also asserts that “[t]he first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”
The point to be emphasized is that the initiative was not undertaken in the educational system, narrowly speaking. The effort was to educate the population as a whole, so classes are offered, for example, at adult education centers, where one can take a seminar on how to know if one has been trolled by a Russian army and learn how to detect manipulated videos, false profiles, and so forth.
According to Mackintosh, this initiative, which is “one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today . . . appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.”
Finland is showing the U.S., indeed the world, what it looks like to combat Russian interference.
But that means talking about education in broad ways. Indeed, funding for public libraries and park districts, not to mention public education overall, has been slashed, never recovering from budget cuts made during the Great Recession. And yet these are key sites of public education for our residents.
The first step is actually recognizing the spheres of education and culture as sites of warfare, really, where we must work to defend democracy.
Putting America first might mean following Finland’s example and recognizing that devotion to public education and critical thinking can prove effective in the fight for democracy.
It’s time for some historical perspective so we can really understand what is going on with this year’s teachers strikes. A common thread in almost every state under Republican rule is that funding has been taken away from public schools, systematically and over a long period of time. The genius of GOP ideology came up with the idea that by cutting state taxes the economies would boom and this would increase state tax revenues. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
You can go to every state with a teachers strike and see the same pattern: Republicans take power and cut taxes, and then to make up the shortfall in state budgets they cut funding to schools.
Over the last ten years, this is how much “per pupil student funding” has DROPPED in each of these four “red states.”
Efforts to undermine unions diminish democratic operations in our schools and disempower those who are most attuned to what our children need.
"We spend far more per pupil than any other country in the world. If you look at education. Out of thirty countries. We’re 30th. We’re last.”
Public education is why kids grow up, many of them, to dismiss crackpot theories like those expressed by Ted Cruz
A new nationwide poll shows the American people overwhelmingly agree that public education should not exist to enrich and profit the charter school privatization movement and they are demanding strong regulatory laws to “rein in documented fiscal malfeasance by private charter schools.”
Ted Cruz's father says public education is a communist plot, but for the Founding Fathers, it was America's hope for the future
Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, Americans should brace themselves for a serious Koch-style assault on revenue and government agencies. Last year, Mitch McConnell told Kansas Governor Sam Brownback that Republicans were panting to enact a Koch-Kansas economic assault on America that Brownback imposed by giving the rich monumental tax breaks at the expense of the state government and residents. At the time, McConnell swooned over Brownback’s trickle-down massacre and told him “It’s exactly what we want to do here in Washington, but we can’t do it yet only controlling the House.” With control of the House and Senate, Republicans can proceed with the same reckless abandon for the government and it is probable that like Kansas, public education is in for some seriously major funding cuts.
For the second time in six months, a Kansas court panel ruled that the state is still not spending enough money on education to “provide a suitable education for children.” In June, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state must increase funding for public K-12 schools to comply with Kansas law mandating that public schools are funded at constitutionally required levels. However, as is their habit, Brownback’s Republicans disregarded the Kansas Constitution and Supreme Court ruling and slashed funding for the state’s public schools to both provide tax cuts for the wealthy and keep their population ignorant. Keeping the population dirt-stupid worked nicely for Brownback’s re-election; particularly after his Koch brother trickle-down tax cutting scheme demolished the state’s economy.
According to the latest ruling against trickle-down Brownback, Kansas is failing miserably to spend enough money on public schools to provide a suitable education for every child. The three-judge panel’s ruling said, “We found the Kansas K-12 school financing formula constitutionally inadequate in its present failure to implement the necessary funding to sustain a constitutionally adequate education as a matter of current fact as well as the precedent facts that supported the Montoy decisions. That is still our opinion.”
The Montoy decision refers to a 2006 school funding lawsuit, and several others including the earlier Supreme Court ruling, that the judges said informed them beyond a shadow of a doubt that “yes, money spent on education makes a difference.” According to evidence, the state needs to increase its education spending at least $548 million a year to comply with Kansas’ Constitutional requirement. Brownback is going to appeal the District Court panel’s decision to the Kansas Supreme Court.
The governor’s spokesperson, Eileen Hawley, released a statement on the decision saying “We will review today’s decision carefully. The Governor will work with legislative leaders to determine the best path forward.” However, Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature will hardly even attempt to comply with this latest ruling any more than the last because it will jeopardize Brownback’s aggressive trickle down tax cuts for the rich and elimination of corporate taxation enacted according to the Koch brothers and trickle down guru Arthur Laffer’s directives. Laffer, like the Kochs and Brownback, claim that it is important to cut the state’s revenue stream in order to increase state revenue and create a jobs bonanza. Since the Koch-Brownback tax cuts for the rich and corporations, Kansas is hemorrhaging revenue, lagging the rest of the nation in job creation, has suffered several credit downgrades, and according to many Republicans is facing bankruptcy in less than two years. Credit rating agencies concur and have enacted several concurrent downgrades.
Public school officials also released their own statements on the decision. Wichita Public Schools superintendent John Allison said, “An educated workforce is key to Kansas’ economic success. I am pleased to see the court’s affirmation that an adequately-funded education is of vital importance to Kansas. While we won’t immediately know the impact of the ruling, we do believe today’s court decision is a great one for today’s students and the future of our state.” Dodge City Superintendent Alan Cunningham said, “In order to accomplish the goal of making every child college or career ready, we need appropriate resources to do our jobs. We continue to have faith that the Kansas legislature will work to ensure that every Kansas child has access to an adequate and fully funded formula for education.”
Kansas public school educators have other problems on their plates as a result of Brownback’s $1.1 billion unfunded tax cuts for the rich besides the inadequate, and unconstitutional, cuts to education. On Tuesday, Kansas education officials reported that the number of homeless students in the state’s schools continues to increase at alarming levels due to low wages and pathetic jobs situation. According to the Kansas State Department of Education, there were nearly 10,400 homeless children attending public schools last year; a thousand more than a year earlier. In fact, Wichita and Kansas City public schools reported there were increases in homeless students of 45% and 20% respectively over the course of just one year.
The coordinator of the education department’s child homelessness program, Tate Toedman, said that Kansas families are taking longer to recover from homelessness than in the past due to the state’s poor economic situation, poverty wages, and lack of jobs. All schools are required by the federal government to keep track of homeless students to receive support and service programs designed specifically to keep children in school. Kansas is so broke, though, that after Brownback’s $1.1 billion unfunded gift to the wealthy there are insufficient funds to keep homeless shelters open.
As an example, one homeless shelter specifically for families with school-aged children in southeastern Kansas had to close its doors in July, and it is all down to the increasing state budget shortfall directly resulting from Brownback’s tax cuts for the rich. The CHOICES Family Emergency Shelter had provided a place to live for 350 homeless people every year, most of whom are children. The closure is another victim of the state budget shortfall that is so severe that even after cutting homeless shelter funding by half for all of 2014, Kansas could not afford to spend $100,000 to keep the shelter open for the rest of the year; but Brownback and Republicans will not do anything to “jeopardize” the epic tax cuts for the rich and corporations, including Koch Industries and its libertarian owners.
It is important to note that Republicans, including Brownback, held up Kansas and its unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy-elite and corporations as the idealized Republican economic plan for all America to follow. One Kansas Republican even admitted that one of the primary goals of the Koch-Brownback economic plan was cutting government down to size and they have been successful in slashing the state public education system to unconstitutional levels as well as cutting public retirement accounts to pay for the tax cuts.
Despite the abject failure in Kansas, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Brownback “It’s exactly what we want to do in Washington,” and now that they control both chambers of Congress, it is certainly what they will attempt. The only thing standing between the entire nation, the federal government, and public education going the way of Kansas is President Obama’s veto pen. Because without him as a firewall, the entire nation will become the Koch brothers’ vision of America and will look exactly like Kansas.
Jindal says Common Core is a federal plot to takeover education, as though the Founding Fathers didn't support the public funding of education.