Williams: Standing Up for Students Means Finally Standing Up to Donald Trump

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July 10, 2016

Conor Williams
Conor Williams

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.
Talking Points

.@ConorPWilliams on conservative ed reformers and why standing up for students means standing up to Trump

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Last summer, I was at a conference with bilingual educators. There's nothing notable about this  — it’s one of the core (and best) parts of my work. But this time, something stood out:


Folks had assembled to discuss dual immersion programs, language acquisition patterns, and federal policy. But the elephant in the room: The Republican Party’s increasingly toxic presidential primaries, which kept trumpeting itself to the forefront of our conversations.
If this seems unremarkable, try to remember back a full 12 months to July of 2015. These were those early days back when the campaign was young and fresh and new. It was back before Trump’s protestations about his, erm, hand size, and before his twitter battles over the relative attractiveness of various candidates’ wives. This was back when Jeb(!) Bush was fundraising the rest of the field out of contention. When Bush’s dynastic ties and substantive policy chops were supposed to be key to broadening the GOP’s appeal beyond old, white, (mostly) men. When the establishment had not yet moved from Bush to Rubio to Kasich or Cruz — to pure terror.
That is, those were relatively easy, tepid days. But the Latinos in that room were already horrified that the Republican zeitgeist had room for Donald Trump’s ugly xenophobia.
Now it’s 2016, just a week away from the GOP convention in Cleveland, and Donald Trump is on the verge of being officially coronated as the leader of the party. At similar bilingual education gatherings now, my immigrant colleagues are alternating between fear and fury.
You’d think that this would be the time for conservative education reformers to demonstrate the sturdiness of their cores and the stoutness of their hearts. Now would be a time to stiffen the old backbones in the service of righteousness and insist that there is no place in American discourse for Trump’s egregious, hateful speech.
But no. As the GOP’s nativist, bigoted standard-bearer threatens to eject millions of immigrants and disrupt countless families, conservative education luminaries fret that movements led by families of color are threatening the education reform movement. As Trump builds an education “platform” that consists of vague threats to eliminate the Department of Education and “the Common Core,” conservative experts gently note the intellectual vacuum in passing on their way to warning about the costs of Hillary Clinton’s (actual, detailed, specific, debatable) proposals. As Trump insists that we close our borders to those who worship differently, as his backers regularly threaten violence against people of color they encounter, conservative elites are focused on reassuring those angry, mostly-white egos.
Conservative reformers are feeling vulnerable.
Look — these are not illegitimate arguments. Ideological pluralism is an important part of the reform movement. The appropriate size and shape of federal involvement in U.S. public education is certainly open for (regular) debate. And, most importantly, conservatives should certainly join ongoing efforts to extend economic opportunity to all Americans — including Trump supporters.
But an argument may be legitimate without being appropriate or timely. It is not the time for privileged conservatives to announce that they feel vulnerable and left out and worried about their party. Nor is it time for a campaign postmortem on how the white working class got so angry.
No. Not now. Right now, these arguments recall a line from the latest season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, where a woman prisoner laughs at a guard wallowing in self-pity: “You are a straight, white man. You don’t get to be the victim, sweetie.”
Nope. When Donald Trump is validating the revanchist — and often racist — furies of many white Americans, the prime, urgent response is simple: a bone-rattling, conclusive, comprehensive defeat of him and his movement.
Trump “must be crushed beyond recognition.” Is he likely to lose? Yes. But the vile views he validates need repudiation not just on Election Day but every day. Now is the time for conservatives to accept a measure of responsibility for participating in the construction of a movement that culminated in Trumpian hate. Now is the time for conservatives to step up and dedicate themselves to stopping his brand of ethno-nationalism. We can explore the causes and contours of his white supporters’ rage later.
There are many reasons for urgency: First, Trump’s proposals are profoundly threatening to core American pluralist principles. Second, he has managed to make radical, fringe rhetoric acceptable in mainstream political discourse. Third, his allergy to nuance — in both politics and policy — is an attitude sure to stymie realistic efforts to solve the United States’ array of serious and pressing problems.
But the best reason that Trump must be wholeheartedly rejected is already on view in our schools. Students of color, often lumped together as “minorities,” make up a majority of U.S. school enrollment — and their numbers are projected to grow significantly over time. Many of these young children are Americans of Latino descent, who eat dinner each night with their immigrant parents — the people Trump describes as venal, evil criminals. Many of these young children pray to Allah while fulfilling their scouting duties in the evenings and on weekends.
Today, as always, the children are our future, and the public schools are the leading indicator of the country we’ll inhabit in a decade or two. But this coming country, the real America on the horizon, is a nation that looks very different than Donald Trump’s America. Demographically speaking, Trump voters are, in many ways, typical for his party, just a little more so: They tend to be white, to lack a high school diploma, and live in areas with few immigrants.
There’s a cynical implication to this argument — you may recall it as the one that animated the GOP’s (defunct) Growth and Opportunity Project. That is, future Republicans need to be able to survive in a more diverse electorate, so they need to appeal to voters outside the party’s current (mostly white) base.
Well. On balance, party survival is no great thing, particularly when there’s something much greater at stake. It is far more important that we practice a politics worthy of our ancestors and build a country that is a suitable heritage for (all of) our children. In our final political accounting, they are the ones we ultimately answer to — not the resplendent revanchism of Trump’s coalition.
There’s a yawning gap between Trump’s angry white voters and the beautifully diverse future that terrifies them. If that prompts you to concerns over the state of conservatism or its place in education reform, let me suggest that you might, instead, consider other questions. Such as, what happens if we respond to Trump’s rise with handwringing over the state of conservatism in education discourse? Or, if we validate Trump and his supporters’ behavior, how long will it take before its presence in the mainstream lends it sufficient credence to ensure that Trump supporters’ children take it up?
Or, how can we repudiate — directly and loudly — the toxicity that Trump has surfaced before it manifests in more of our schools and affects more of our children? As important as it might be to get the Republican Party back on its feet, that question seems somewhat more pressing.