There has been plenty of outcry since Wednesday over the Trump Administration’s move to ban transgendered Americans from serving or joining in the nation’s military. For good reason. Seventy years after President Harry Truman issued the executive order that desegregated the nation’s armed forces, the current occupant of the White House and his staff declared symbolically that the federal government will explicitly (and unconstitutionally_ promote discrimination against a group of taxpayers and citizens it is supposed to serve.
But for school reformers, the Trump Administration’s move is another reminder of the reality that they can no longer count on federal policymakers to aid their battle to build brighter futures for all children, especially the most-vulnerable.
This was clear to reformers back in March, when now-deservedly embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the rest of the administration repealed the Obama Administration’s executive order requiring traditional districts and other public school operators to allow transgendered children to use bathrooms of the sex with which they identify. So determined was the administration in refusing to defend the civil rights of vulnerable children that it even ignored Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos demand that it seek feedback from civil rights groups before proceeding with the move.
Before that move, many reformers became alarmed about the Trump Administration’s aggressive efforts to detain and deport undocumented emigres who contribute greatly to the nation’s economy and society. With some 3.9 million children facing the prospect of their parents (and even themselves) being sent back to place in which their lives and economic prospects are endangered, districts such as Chicago Public Schools and charter schools have told their principals to not comply with requests from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit.
The most-important wake-up call came last month when news leaked out that the Department of Education was scaling back investigations of civil rights violations — including overuse by districts of harsh school discipline against Black and other minority children — as part of the administration’s overall refusal to enforce civil rights laws. In a memo leaked by ProPublica, Deputy Assistant Secretary Candice Jackson, who oversees the agency’s Office for Civil Rights, told regional directors that it would no longer obtain three years of past complaints filed by against a district or charter when investigating a new complaint. Essentially this means investigators can no longer use previous complaints as evidence of a district systematically overusing suspensions, expulsions, spankings, and even restraints and seclusion (solitary confinement) against particular groups of kids. This move was a reversal of the Obama Administration’s support of efforts to reform how districts and charter schools discipline children in their care.
So the Trump Administration’s ban on transgenders in the military is no surprise to reformers, especially the civil rights-oriented players and centrist Democrats in the movement. Nor are they surprised by the administration’s filing Wednesday of an amicus brief in a case before the Second Circuit arguing that federal civil rights laws don’t cover sexual orientation, and therefore, aren’t applicable to gays.
If anything, the administration’s latest moves confirm what your editor pointed out over the past seven months: That the federal government — especially the Department of Education — can no longer be trusted to play a role in advancing systemic reform.
Even before DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education, she refused to condemn then-President-Elect Donald Trump for his campaign of race-baiting and bigotry. Since taking office, she has proven incapable of standing up strongly and successfully on behalf of our most-vulnerable children against the machinations of this administration. Her appointment of Jackson, whose career has been marked by opposition to civil rights laws, as the overlord of enforcing them has proven how little concern she has for the important role the federal government plays in ensuring that poor and minority children access high-quality education.
Certainly she can be applauded for bringing former 50CAN executive Jason Botel into the fold as her point person on implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. She also deserves some credit for giving him plenty of leeway in demanding revamps of state plans, as well as protecting him so far from criticism for doing so by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander.
But that is merely faint praise, especially in light of how DeVos is failing to defend children on other fronts. The Trump Administration’s proposed $250 million increase in funding for the federal Charter School Fund (as well as another $1 billion in Title I funds devoted to expanding intra-district choice for low-income children) is offset by the elimination of $2.2 billion in funding for Americorps, the program that helps districts provide poor and minority children with Teach for America recruits proven to improve their academic achievement. That the White House proposes to also cut another $519 million in funding for science and technology education efforts that are directly under the education department’s purview (as well as other education dollars overseen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). This proposed move that makes the president’s decision this week to donate a mere $100,000 in salary to host a STEM camp on the grounds of the education department even more callous than it appears.
Even the proposed expansion of the Charter School Fund is less than it seems. This is because it doesn’t include setting-aside funds to help families and communities launch their own charters, a key to making families lead decision-makers in education and expanding choice. Nor does the plan require states to set-aside a portion of those funds for those purposes. The only players who will get those additional dollars are existing charter operators, many of whom already have enough resources to finance expansion. Add in the fact that congressional leaders are unlikely to approve such an expansion (and that the Trump administration lacks the ties to Congress needed to make it a reality), and the proposed increase is a mirage.
Most reformers have long ago disavowed (or never held) the notion of the current president embracing the school reformer-in-chief mantle embraced by every occupant of the White House since Ronald Reagan. Given DeVos’ difficulties in competently running the Department of Education as well as her lack of clout within the administration and Trump’s well-proven record of bigotry, this was sensible. Given that Congressional Democrats, despite their energetic efforts, lack the majorities needed to oppose the administration’s agenda, and that moderate Republicans are generally uninterested in advancing reform, it means that they must fight harder than ever with different approaches on behalf of all children.
Even conservative reformers, many of whom backed DeVos because of their dependence on her family’s fortune (and have been pleased with the administration’s roll-back of the Obama administration’s school discipline reform efforts) are becoming disillusioned. Thursday’s news that neither Trump nor Congressional Republicans will expand school choice through the creation of education tax credits (even after heavy lobbying from the DeVos-backed American Federation for Children) is one more sign that they have no influence inside the Beltway. That the Trump Administration’s bigotry on other fronts has angered centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reform allies is also complicating the efforts of conservative reformers to advance other efforts at all levels.
Meanwhile the Trump Administration’s failures as a governing body make it an unreliable partner in advancing conservative reform aims. This was reinforced over the past couple of days, especially as the Joint Chiefs of Staff refused to enforce the transgender ban until it actually received an executive order (which has yet to be issued), and feuding between the administration’s communication czar and Chief of Staff Reince Preibus spilled out into the open in a stream of profanity-laced vitriol. Add in the spectacular inability of House and Senate Republicans in control of Congress to pass any legislation, and it becomes clear that little will get done on any front.
With an openly bigoted and spectacularly incompetent administration overseeing the federal government, reformers must now pursue new approaches for helping all children succeed. The emphasis on advancing transformation of public education at the federal level is no longer possible at this time. Maybe these realities will finally convince them to build ties to other activists working against the administration on other front — as well as force them to finally build a stronger infrastructure for advancing reform at the state and local levels.