Education was not a subject of great importance during the recent Presidential campaign. It did not come up during the debates and was not often mentioned during the general election. Hillary Clinton ran with the strong support of the two national teachers’ unions and promised to support schools and teachers. Donald Trump announced his education policy while visiting a for-profit charter school in Ohio. He pledged to divert $20 billion in federal funds for school choice, whether charters or vouchers for religious schools. He also promised on several occasions to “get rid of” Common Core, the controversial standards that were widely adopted by the states during Obama’s second term.
There has been widespread speculation about who might be picked as Secretary of Education. And there has been widespread speculation about whether the Trump administration would either trim the Department of Education or eliminate it altogether.
Some of the names that have been prominently mentioned are Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the public schools of the District of Columbia; Eva Moskowitz, chief executive officer of the Success Academy charter schools in New York City; and Williamson (Bill) Evers of the Hoover Institution.
Rhee and Moskowitz would certainly be zealous proponents of school choice. Selecting either of them would be a thumb in the eyes of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who campaigned mightily for Clinton. Both have tangled with the unions and made clear their distaste for public schools and for teachers’ unions.
Rhee is a fierce warrior, who is known for firing teachers and principals who don’t raise test scores. Her negatives: a cheating scandal in D.C. during her tenure that was never fully investigated, and her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has admitted to indiscretions with young girls in the past.
Moskowitz’s charter schools boast very high test scores, but critics say she gets them by pushing out kids with low scores and excluding children with disabilities and English language learners. Taking the job with Trump would be a big salary cut for Moskowitz, who now makes double the salary of a Cabinet Secretary. And it is not clear whether there is any number two in her organization to keep it running without her.
Evers has been a crusader for traditional math instruction for many years. He has fought against the Common Core. As part of the conservative Koret Task Force on Education at the Hoover Institution, he has written widely about curriculum and instruction and he served on a local school board in California. He served as an education advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and subsequently as an Assistant Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush.
The Common Core divides these three candidates. Rhee and Moskowitz are strong supporters of the Common Core, which they implemented in the schools they have commanded. Breitbart News has already reported that parents who supported Trump are worried that he might back down on his opposition to Common Core by appointing either of them.
If President-elect Trump wants to take a swat at the teachers’ unions and supporters of public schools, he can’t go wrong with Rhee or Moskowitz. If he wants to show his determination to remove federal support for Common Core, Evers is a good bet.
Whoever he chooses may be tasked with the job of downsizing or closing down the Department of Education. That doesn’t mean the programs it runs will disappear, just that they will be shifted to another department. For many years, education was part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and education programs might be returned there or dispersed elsewhere.
Whoever Trump chooses for Secretary — and it might be someone totally different from the three mentioned here — these will be challenging times for public education …
Trump has declared his determination to privatize public schools, to the extent that federal funds can encourage that outcome. No high-performing nation in the world has privatized its public schools; all have strong and equitably resourced public schools, staffed by certified teachers, not well-meaning amateurs. The two nations that did buy into the free-market privatization ideology — Sweden and Chile — have regretted it. Instead of better education, they got greater segregation of students by race, income, religion, and social status.
The threat to public schools is real under a Trump administration. In the recent election, voters in Massachusetts and Georgia overwhelmingly defeated ballot measures to increase the number of charter schools. Trump won Georgia, but the voters of Georgia turned down the same education proposal that Trump wants to fund.
Under the terms of current law, states have the power to decide how to use federal funds that are not tied to a mandatory program. If Trump releases $20 billion to the states, it will be left to governors and legislatures to decide whether to protect their public schools. Some deeply conservative states might decide to side with privatization, but it is not at all clear that the parents and local school districts will go along, even in Republican-controlled states.
Ravitch is author of many books, including Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. She is a research professor of education at New York University and served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to the Secretary of Education from 1991-1993 under the George H. W. Bush administration. She now blogs at dianeravitch.net.