By Ethan S. Ake
For many in the education community, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has sounded a deafening alarm over the future of public education. And with the announcement of Elizabeth DeVos, a staunch advocate of the school choice movement and the architect of Detroit’s charter school system, as the future Secretary of Education, there is a palpable fear among educators that her yet-to-be-proposed policies will not only accelerate the decline of the nation’s urban public schools, but also exasperate longstanding inequities in education from school funding to the “achievement” gap. Although it is incumbent upon the education community––practitioners, administrators and researchers––to resist any measure that promotes inequality, it would be naïve to hold the incoming administration exclusively accountable for failed reform policies in public, and in particular in urban, education.
Make no mistake about it; in the past 20 years, both Democrats and Republicans have embraced free-market approaches to education. However, it is only now with the election of Donald Trump that many within and outside the education community are even becoming cognizant of how these regressive policies have laid the foundation for a very public dismantling of urban schools. It is no secret that, since the Reagan Revolution, Republicans have openly endorsed school choice. In fact, the famed economist Milton Friedman, who started his own school choice foundation called EdChoice, was an influential adviser to Ronald Reagan. But during the 1980s, Democrats under the direction of Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, attempted to reign in school-choice proposals by making demands for equitable education funding a hallmark of their education agenda. They stood side-by-side with teachers’ unions in calling for policymakers to address the one issue that impacts educational outcomes above all others––socioeconomic disparity.
However, in the 1990s, this changed. With Bill Clinton’s push to make the Democratic party a more center-left party, the national policy debate surrounding school reform shifted away from the socioeconomic disparities of schooling to the structure and organization of the schools themselves. Richard Riley, Clinton’s Secretary of Education, said it best in his March 1997 State of Education Address:
"We need to stop making excuses and get on with the business of fixing our schools. If a school is bad and can't be changed, reconstitute it or close it down. If a principal is slow to get the message, find strength in a new leader. If teachers are burned out, counsel them to improve or leave the profession. If laws need to be changed, get on with it." (as cited in CNN, 1997, para. 7)
Riley’s comments and policies provided the Democratic imprimatur for the school choice movement and the term school choice became synonymous with school reform. When Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, he brought to Washington, D.C. the spiritual successor of Riley, Arne Duncan, who was the former superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. Under Duncan, school choice flourished. Since 1995, the Department of Education has awarded over $3 billion to charter schools alone––the most common form of school choice; since 2008 specifically, the number of charter schools has grown by almost 50%, while over that same period nearly 4,000 traditional public schools have closed (NAPCS, 2013; Zubrzycki, 2012).
Choice & Charters: The Facts and the Allure
It would be easy to dismiss critics of school choice if charters were a tried and true method of improving student achievement. However, most education researchers, aspiring and veteran, know the results are mixed at best. In 2009, researchers from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released a national study of charter school performance and found that only about one in five charter schools (17%) had better test scores than comparable public schools. However, an even larger group of charters (37%) performed significantly worse in terms of reading and math. The remainder (46%) did not do significantly better or worse (Raymond, 2009). In 2013, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance” (Maul & McClelland, 2013, p. 7). Likewise, in 2013, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education released a report on charter school reform over the past decade in New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, with the latter two being the backyard and hometown, respectively, of President Obama and Secretary Duncan. The report noted that “expanding access to charter schools” was “a common focus of reforms in the three cities,” but “assertions that charter schools improve educational outcomes are not supported by rigorous studies…Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students” (Weiss & Long, 2013, p. 1). Often, charter school apologists will point to the nearly one in five high-performing charters noted in the CREDO study as evidence of success. However, such a biased review is based on illusion rather than scientific evidence. If an experimental medical procedure had a 17% success rate with a 46% chance of little to no improvement and a 37% chance of even worse outcomes, few in the medical community would rush to hail that technique a success.
So why does school choice, such as charter schools, have such an allure to it? While there is an entrepreneurial aspect to the school choice movement that cannot be discounted, for the sake of brevity, I will only address the philosophical underpinning of choice here. Societies are only as strong as the socioeconomic institutions that undergird them. Unfortunately, in the United States and particularly in the last half century, many foundational institutions such as public services, community centers, labor unions and so on have either been severely weakened or altogether eliminated. Public schooling remains the last great social institution that exists in this country and one that still guarantees access to all individuals regardless of race, class and even citizenship status. Imagine, for a moment, a society in which free community hospitals and community centers were present in every zip code much like post offices are today. These free community hospitals would be tasked with educating the public regarding proper nutrition, hygiene, family planning and attending to physical and mental health needs. Likewise, community centers would have counselors on hand to help their respective populations deal with financial counseling or substance abuse and even offer language and culture classes to newly arrived immigrants and their families. Not only would such a system alleviate some of the tremendous pressures put on schools, but it would also have a spillover effect by reducing crime and poverty and allow schools to focus on what they are actually designed to do––provide quality teaching and learning. However, in the absence of these supporting socioeconomic institutions, schools have been under immense evolutionary pressure to restructure themselves in order to compensate for society’s shortcomings. Hence the rise of various models of schools from experimental community schools in California to the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. Naturally, the majority of schools do not have the extraordinary amount of time, money, resources (human or otherwise) and legal support that would be needed to overcome the deficit resulting from the absence of foundational institutions. In fact, fulfilling this mandate would require schools to possess so much power that they would single-handedly control the development of a nation’s youth from infancy to adulthood––something no society on Earth has ever done. The few schools, whether public, private or charter, that can achieve the Herculean task of compensating the deficit are touted as the panacea to the so-called “crisis in schooling,” which in reality is the inability of schools to bridge the aforementioned deficit.
Policymakers, who are reluctant to fight politically for stronger foundational institutions, have either surrendered that fight altogether or adopted the free market approach wholesale, and advocate for school choice as the only means by which society can overcome this “crisis in schooling.” Herein resides the most lamentable aspect of school choice. It has become an easy way to “address” the issue of socioeconomic deficit without really addressing it at all. In a sense, school choice apologists, by obsessing over the structure and organization of schools at cost of correcting for gaping socioeconomic disparities in the environment, have conceded that issues such as income inequality and generational poverty––issues known to be the single greatest predictor of life outcomes––can either never be solved or are not worth solving. Left with the conclusion that inequality and poverty are immutable aspects of American society, and cornered by mounting research that choice only serves to exasperate already present inequities, school choice advocates are ironically left with no other option than to argue for their beliefs from an ideological or theoretical standpoint.
What We Can Do in the Age of Trump
The ascendancy of Donald Trump offers the education community the chance to not only critically reflect upon education issues that dominate headlines such as choice, but also translate these discussions into advocacy and action. This election cycle has brought to light the fact that a great number of people in the United States, academics included, are content with surrounding themselves with persons and media that reinforce their views. We see in the aftermath of this election how easy it is for a divide-and-conquer philosophy to prevail in the absence of open dialogue, advocacy and action. My own home state of Pennsylvania, with its sharp urban-rural divide, helped deliver a surprising electoral college victory for Donald Trump after voting reliably Democratic since 1992. However, in retrospect, the victory was not wholly unexpected. Rural and small-town Pennsylvania have been hit with the same crushing income inequality, poverty, and increase in unemployment and substance abuse that has primarily been characteristic of urban areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania, like its counterparts Michigan and Ohio, has been crying out for socioeconomic relief for decades. Consequently, in the wake of the ever-expanding socioeconomic deficit, its schools, including wealthier suburban schools, are left to compensate for the influx of the disenfranchised and dispossessed––immigrants, people who are homeless, and single-parent families––all desperate for better prospects. Thus, the traditional problems of urban education are not confined to the urban space.
As education professionals, we have an unprecedented opportunity in the new Trump administration to step outside the ivory tower echo chamber and connect our knowledge and experience in the education sphere to the larger discussion surrounding social justice and economic equality. Bringing renewed focus and policy pressure to tackle the socioeconomic disparities in schooling with the same vigor and resources that have heretofore been given to study the structure and organization of schools, forces us to acknowledge that reform cannot occur in vitro as implied by choice advocates. The society in which community hospitals and community centers exist in every zip code is not one of fantasy. In fact, such societies do exist and outperform the United States in global education rankings. For instance, Germany (11th Reading/16th Math/15th Science), Canada (3rd Reading/10th Math/6th Science) and Finland (4th Reading/13th Math/4th Science) not only far outranked the United States (24th Reading/40th Math/24th Science) in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, but also have to varying degrees the racial diversity characteristic of this country (OECD, 2015). However, what they do not have is high level of income inequality characteristic of the United States. In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organization comprised of 35 nations that measures income inequality using the commonly accepted Gini coefficient, the United States had the third highest amount of income inequality in the OECD as of 2012 with a coefficient of 0.394 compared with Canada’s 0.321, Germany’s 0.289 and Finland’s 0.261. Only Turkey and Mexico had higher coefficients, with 0.402 and 0.482, respectively (OECD, 2012). What is all the more interesting is that Canada, Germany and Finland all have much higher rates of union membership, a guaranteed hedge against income inequality, than the United States. As of 2013, union membership in the United States was 10.8% of the workforce with Germany (18.1%), Canada (27.1%) and Finland (69%) all mirroring the order of their PISA rankings (OECD, 2013).
Trump, DeVos and their free market sympathizers have for decades outlined and enacted their vision for privatized public education. And, regrettably, in the last two decades many on the left have tacitly endorsed these policies by offering no real accountability for the free-market agenda. However, the time has come for academics to advocate for equality in full measure beyond hallowed lecture halls, in order to remind politicians and policymakers that they were not elected to manage the decline of public education, one of the most venerable social enterprises attempted by any society. It is true that inequality is a defining hallmark of human civilization. Yet the degree to which we tolerate that inequality speaks volumes of who we are as a society. Do we work to fulfill the ideal that the United States is a land of equality and opportunity for all, or concede that this ideal is beyond reach? The answer to that question will shape American education in the era of Trump and beyond.
Maul, A., & McClelland, A. (2013). Review of National Charter School Study 2013. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-credo-2013
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2013, January). Back to school tallies: Estimated number of public charter schools & students, 2012-2013 [Press release]. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from http://www.publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/NAPCS-2012-13-New-and-Closed-Charter-Schools_20130114T161322.pdf
OECD (n.d.). Income distribution and poverty: GINI – Disposable income, post taxes and transfers [Database]. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=IDD
OECD, Programme for International Student Assessment (6 December 2015). PISA 2015: Results in focus. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf
OECD & Visser, J. (2013). ICTWSS database, Institutional characteristics of trade unions, wage setting, state intervention and social pacts, 1960-2014, version 3.0 [Database]. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=UN_DEN
Players: Richard Riley (Profile). (1997, April 18). Retrieved January 03, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1997/gen/resources/players/riley/
Raymond, M. (2009). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states: Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) Report. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from https://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf
Weiss, E., & Long, D. (2013). Market-oriented education reforms' rhetoric trumps reality: The impacts of test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, and increased charter school access on student outcomes in Chicago, New York City, and Washington. Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from http://www.edweek.org/media/rhetorictrumpsreality-28reports.pdf
Zubrzycki, J. (2012, October 12). School shutdowns trigger growing backlash. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/10/17/08closings_ep.h32.html?qs=school%2Bclosings
Ethan Ake is a Ph.D. student in Urban Education and is dual enrolled in the K-12 school leadership program at Temple University. He also serves as the Co-President of the Temple University Graduate Student Association (AFT Local #6290). Prior to his studies at Temple University, Ethan was a high school biology teacher for over five years, first at a charter school in downtown Philadelphia and later at an independent all-girls school in suburban Philadelphia. His research interests include issues related to teaching as a profession, such as teacher demographics, preparation and turnover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org