Whitmire: Welcome to the Trump Presidency — and the Hazy New Battle Lines of the Education Debate
’Tis the season of uncertainty.
Speaking as a veteran education writer, that was the best way to describe the weeks that led up to Friday’s inaugration. Or, to put it more bluntly: Things have gotten weird, really weird.
Prior to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, everyone on all sides of the education battle pretty much knew what they were doing — and were prepared to execute on their plans. The teachers unions, assuming they would be rejoicing in the expected victory by their close ally Hillary Clinton, undoubtedly had big plans. Fresh off the huge anti-charter win in Massachusetts, where they had the white middle class turned their way, the time was ripe for a national campaign to declare a moratorium on new charter schools.
You can almost hear the air hissing out of that big plan.
Instead, we see AFT President Randi Weingarten at the National Press Club weighing in against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice to lead the federal education department. “She is poised to swing her Michigan wrecking ball all across America. If Donald Trump wanted an ideologue, he found one.”
There’s just no way that’s how Weingarten planned to spend January.
There’s no less turbulence among the school reformers. Only a few weeks ago, there was great camaraderie among the reformers. Sure, some charter advocates never thought too much of vouchers, and some voucher advocates thought charters were too burdened with rules to ever become transformational. But for the most part, everyone kept those reservations buttoned up.
Now, sensing a full-scale Trumpian voucher push, its advocates wage Twitter battle against charter-only advocates who dare to disrespect the track record of vouchers. (OK, full disclosure: You’ll find me in that Twitter debate.)
In theory, charter advocates should be welcoming the very charter-friendly DeVos. Instead, Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries said Democrats have no business working for Trump and opposed DeVos. And he doesn’t want to see Title I money shifted away from high-poverty schools and used for school choice options.
The message: The Trump team and most charter champions will not be enjoying spritzers at a mixer. Privately, many top charter leaders, whose progressive views were forged in the civil rights movement, cringe at the idea of Trump championing their cause. More damage than good will come of this, they warn.
One not-so-private fear is the all-too-real chance of a major pendulum swing. When the Trump era ends, chances are good that politics will swing to the progressive side. At that point, charters will be tainted by Trump, mashed up with vouchers, and will undoubtedly lose their crucial bipartisan support. Especially from any Democracts in the white middle class.
That would be game over. Count me in as part of that worry camp.
The press, meanwhile, seems just as disoriented. Their response to the DeVos pick has been to pile on down-and-out Detroit with damning data about the charter schools there championed by DeVos.
OK, they have a point. But doesn’t Detroit didn’t have enough challenges already? I mean, Detroiters just got their street lights switched on.
I’m still waiting for the first press report that digs into a particular city to assess: This is how DeVos could make expanding choice actually work. But nope, pretty much just a steady barrage of Detroit diatribes.
That’s a lack of imagination surrounding a new president’s priorities that can only be explained by these weird times. Everyone’s just searching for their lost footing.
And you have to pity the NAACP, which probably assumed a Clinton win would fuel its campaign to place a moratorium on charter schools. Instead, they got Donald Trump, who champions school competition. Schools are just like businesses, says Trump. They get sharper with competition.
Education insiders know better, but there’s no denying where the White House is headed. In Memphis earlier this month, the NAACP panel investigating charter-district relations seemed to soften its stance. No sharp elbows got thrown. What’s the point?
And let’s not forget the Democratic senators who tore into DeVos at last week’s confirmation hearing. Most of them have private school connections. And how many more moved their families to well-off suburban school districts, the most common pathway for parents to exercise school choice?
How hypocritical will they seem if they seek to deny the same to poor families? ’Tis the season of uncertainty for senators, as well.
Where is all this leading? It’s tempting to assume that if DeVos passes out of committee next week, is confirmed by the Senate and ultimately lays out her game plan, everyone will tighten up their games and resume their previous positions.
Or maybe not. A smarter guess would be that the uncertainty will persist.
DeVos, if confirmed, will press her campaign to block-grant a school choice offering. Many states will choose vouchers, which will only heighten the voucher-charter spat inside the reform community.
Many charter advocates will continue to pretend they have no idea who these newcomers are — or express embarrassment. Who is this Betsy DeVos? The unions aren’t going to quit fighting, and they’re certainly not going to relinquish their goal of imposing a moratorium on new charters — a goal that only recently seemed within reach.
Thus, the season of education uncertainty will plod on, and on. For four long, dismal years.
The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation provided funding to The 74 from 2014 to 2016. Campbell Brown serves on the boards of both The 74 and the American Federation for Children, which was formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos. Brown played no part in the reporting or editing of this essay.
Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter