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The Riehl World-Trump’s Plan to Make American Education Great Again: Abandon Public Schools

By Richard Riehl

President-elect Trump described his choice for Secretary of Education in a November 23rd tweet as a “passionate education advocate,” who will “break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.” Tweeting her reply, Betsy DeVos vowed to work with Trump “on his vision to make American education great again.”

Will tweets follow, identifying those years of greatness, together with the plan to return to them? Don’t hold your breath.

Over the last half century eight presidents (four Democrats, four Republicans) recognized the shortcomings of American education.

In 1962 President Kennedy’s Special Message to Congress on Education, declared, “Our educational system has failed to keep pace with the problems and needs of our complex technological society. Too many are illiterate or untrained, and thus either unemployed or under-employed.”

In 1965 President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a cornerstone of his “War on Poverty,” recognized poverty as a prime reason many students fail. The law provided federal funding to schools to help children from low income households close their achievement gap in reading, writing, and mathematics.

In 1979 President Carter, declaring education “our most important investment,” signed into law the establishment of a cabinet level U.S. Department of Education.

In 1983 President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education produced a report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, a comprehensive collection of data revealing, “Thirteen percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.”

In 1990 George H.W. Bush promised, “By the year 2000, US students must be the first in the world in math and science achievement. Every American adult must be a skilled, literate worker and citizen. The nation will not accept anything less than excellence in education.”

In 1994 President Clinton signed the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, holding schools accountable for results, adding Innovative Education Strategies, such as charter schools, and reauthorizing Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In 2002 President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, holding schools accountable for student proficiency at grade level by the 2013-14 school year.

After NCLB failed to reach that goal, President Obama signed its replacement on December 10, 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The half-century parade of legislation to improve schools shows that American education has never enjoyed a golden age of greatness DeVos promises to restore. But there’s plenty of evidence of progress, thanks to our last eight presidents.

  • Kennedy made better schools vital to our national interests.
  • Johnson recognized how poverty crushed student achievement.
  • Carter raised education issues to cabinet-level importance.
  • Reagan spurred reform with hard evidence of failing schools.
  • Bush Sr. set a goal for America to be first in the world in math and science.
  • Clinton introduced accountability for results and innovative programs.
  • Bush set specific reading/math goals for all students.
  • Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative rewarded innovation and accountability.

Trump has now nominated a billionaire philanthropist to be his Secretary of Education. Betsy DeVos has no experience at all in traditional public education, neither in her own schooling, nor in school advocacy and support. She graduated from Holland Christian High School and Calvin College in Michigan. She sent her children to private Christian schools.

A national leader in parental choice, DeVos has advocated for public funding of vouchers for private, faith-based schools, and home schooling. She opposes Common Core, the achievement standards describing what students should know and be able to do from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Devos is Chairman of the Board of the American Federation for Children, whose mission statement reads: We believe public education must be defined as providing families with the public funding they need to choose the education they determine is best for their children. The Foundation supports policies that empower families to choose a public, charter, private, virtual or home school.”

Unlike any of the ten previous leaders of the U.S. Office of Education, DeVos has shown more interest in public financing of private schools than improving public schools for all.

DeVos will oversee a government agency whose mission goes beyond the issue of school choice.

According to the DOE website, its mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. The department is dedicated to making policy on college student loans and grants, collecting data and disseminating research on America’s schools, focusing national attention on school issues, prohibiting discrimination, and ensuring equal access to education.

Among the department’s 2014-2018 priority goals are these:

  • Increase enrollment in high-quality state pre-school programs
  • Improve learning by ensuring that more students have effective teachers and leaders
  • Support comprehensive early learning assessment systems

With his choice of Betsy DeVos, it’s clear President-elect Trump believes the quality of schools can be easily ranked, parents should have the freedom to choose schools for their children based on that ranking, taxpayer funding will be available regardless of whether it’s a public or private school, and competition for students will result in better schools for all.

It’s a free enterprise model, creating winners and losers for schools as well as students.

Studies have shown student test scores, commonly used to rate schools, correlate closely with family income. The quality of a school can be predicted by its address. Without alleviating the burden of poverty and crime facing students before and after school because of where they live, school choice vouchers represent the abandonment of America’s commitment to a good school in every neighborhood.

If Betsy DeVos is confirmed by the Senate it may come as no surprise to find President Trump signing the Every Parent Satisfied School Choice Act.

Kids who’ve chosen the wrong parents need not apply.


Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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