Start with a child living out her youth in Donald Trump’s America. Here she is, one of many, thick with needs and positively glowing with potential. She sparkles with curiosity. She is the future of the United States; our tomorrow will be only as bright, full, and expansive as hers.
She is not, hopefully, spending her present immersed in the details and debate related to President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal for the federal Department of Education. As conservative British philosopher Michael Oakeshott once put it, “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a brief, sweet insanity, a confusion of life & art in which all human activities save love are dissolved into infinite possibilities, in which there are no obligations … In this dream politics alone has no place.”
It’s a noble view of childhood, though perhaps the verb forms are wrong. Everybody’s youth should be “a dream” replete with “infinite possibilities.” Everybody’s childhood should be defined by creative, meaningful growth and exploration. Peaceful early years are a critical foundation for productive adults. And yet the reality of American childhood today often belies this promise.
This is the right lens for thinking about Trump’s budget. The spending plan pitched by the president matters to this child’s present, so it matters for our common future. Presidential budget proposals are more news-cycle showmanship than substantial public policy debate. It’s easy to be distracted by debates related to various education reforms.
Ignore those. Focus on the current contours of childhood in the United States.
Understand: Because this child lives here, in the United States, she is more likely to spend her early years living in poverty. She has about a 50 percent chance of needing public subsidies to provide her with lunch at school each day. Paradoxically, she is also more likely to struggle with obesity (and its attendant health risks).
These facts shape her life. She carries them each day and, naturally, brings them to school — where she faces a host of further systemic challenges built into the American approach to addressing poverty and governing public education. If her family struggles with poverty, she is far too likely to attend segregated schools with other students whose families face similar challenges.
These facts are not inevitable. They are not her fault. They are the product of our policy choices. We have built systems that exacerbate inequality and add obstacles to her upward mobility. We have decided that this is how huge segments of American children should spend their youth and, thus, have implicitly asked teachers and schools to handle the consequences.
This forms the core of American poverty and education debates. We tolerate — and even encourage — enormous socioeconomic inequalities that put significant pressure on huge numbers of American kids, and then ask schools to close them.
Hold this — hold that child — in your mind when thinking about the president’s budget proposal. It makes significant cuts to federal education programs. It eliminates the federal government’s major investments in teachers’ professional development and moves some money from the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) Title I, the primary federal investment in K-12 schools serving high concentrations of low-income families. It keeps federal funding for supporting English learners constant (ESSA’s Title III).
Meanwhile, U.S. K-12 enrollment is growing — up 5 percent since 1997. There are 2 million more English learner students in U.S. schools today than there were in 2000. A proposal that maintains current funding levels for Title I and Title III (or approximately so) is really a budget that cuts support for these students.
According to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the budget “makes a historic investment in America’s students … giving parents more control over their child’s education.” Specifically, it puts additional federal dollars (including some from Title I) into expanding school choice programs.
Whether or not you support school choice programs, this proposal’s theory of action is deeply suspect. Prominent school choice advocates were unimpressed. Back in February, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) responded to DeVos’s confirmation as secretary by calling her a “very gifted and well-respected education leader … [who] has spent much of her life working on behalf of low-income and working-class Black families.”
The alliance’s response to the administration’s budget proposal was starkly different: “the slashing of $9 billion — or 13 percent — from the Department of Education’s overall budget is an awfully painful way to put families and children first … these draconian cuts to public education will undoubtedly hurt our most vulnerable children, especially those from low-income and working-class Black families.”
Even though the president’s budget proposal would increase federal grants to charter schools by $158 million, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools agreed, predicting that the president’s budget “would have long-lasting, far-reaching negative consequences for children, families, communities, and our country as a whole.”
And yet, somehow, even these abdications of responsibility aren’t quite the worst part of the president’s budget. No. The real story is the damage it does to the country’s already-inadequate funding streams that support some basic needs of low-income families. In the face of the dire facts of American childhood outlined above, the leader of the Republican Party proposes to cut hundreds of billions of dollars in food, health, and welfare programs.
In a press release, the Center for Law and Social Policy called the cuts “cruel and devastating” and warned that they “slash investments in America’s future, and destabilize state and local budgets — which would in turn precipitate a next round of deep cuts to basic services.”
Go back to that child. Remember all the headwinds she is already facing as an American kid in 2017. Now imagine what happens when the social services programs protecting her family from indigence begin to evaporate. Imagine that she shows up to school even hungrier, even less healthy, with even more pain, suffering, and stress.
Her school is already straining at the edges to meet her needs and ease her burdens so that it can also provide her with an education that gives her a chance at closing the systemic gaps inflicted upon her. Much as we might prefer to separate the host of issues affecting her childhood from education reform, children don’t develop that way. What’s good for kids at school can’t be answered in isolation from the broader, fundamental, comprehensive question of what’s good for kids.
Finally, remember that she is the country’s future. She will grow up in a complex, politically and economically interconnected world facing enormous challenges. She will pay the taxes that allow today’s adults to retire in security and health. She will make the United States safer, wealthier, stronger, and greater than it is right now.
Or, rather, she could do all of this, if only we gave her the childhood — and the education — she deserves.