Are Donald Trump And Betsy DeVos The Civil Rights Leaders Of Our Time?

Trump picked up on the deceptive line that we have heard from free-market ideologues for the past 15 years.

The title of this post may strike you as a strange question, in light of the well-known history of the Trump Organization in discriminating against blacks who sought to rent their properties and the DeVos’s longstanding role as the antagonist of government programs of all kinds, especially in education. History in this country shows that government, not the private sector, is the most faithful guarantor of rights and equity. 

Yet in his speech last night, Trump picked up on the deceptive line that we have heard from free-market ideologues for the past 15 years:

Education is the civil rights issue of our time.

I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them. 

Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather. As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.

We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha.

In reality, the true civil rights issue of our time is the fight to save public education as a public responsibility, responsible for all, doors open to all, staffed by well-prepared teachers.

Trump may have given a big boost to the school choice movement―vouchers, charters, cybercharters, homeschooling―but his embrace should be the kiss of death for those who know that his bona fides as a leader of the civil rights movement are non-existent, and that our public schools are vital to our democracy. 

It is not difficult to open the public coffers and have a free-for-all for anyone who wants part of the public treasury. The for-profit, fly-by-night charter schools that populate Michigan’s education landscape must have been heartened by Trump’s declaration. The basement voucher schools no doubt have dreams of public dollars coming their way. The fraudulent cybercharter operators who rake in millions in profit must be rubbing their hands with glee. 

It is hard, by contrast, to build and sustain high-quality public schools in every community.

Clearly this administration has neither the will nor the heart to do what society needs. They do not intend to increase federal funding; they intend to divide it up among all who want a share. That will cripple community public schools, and they know it. The victims will be the great majority of children who are still enrolled in public schools. 

The New York Times this morning blasted Betsy DeVos’s “fake history” of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, recognizing that they began not as “school choice,” but as a response to racism and exclusion.

The same editorial board has faithfully parroted the virtues of charters and school choice, and one day may have to deal with its contradictory stance.

Privately owned and managed charters do not improve public schools; they take funding away from public schools, thus disadvantaging them even further. In the name of “choice” for the few, they weaken the schools that serve whoever arrives at the schoolhouse doors.

Let’s be clear about “school choice,” at least in this country. It was born of racism in the mid-1950s as a way to evade the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. Southern governors and senators took up “choice” as their rallying cry. For many years the term itself was stigmatized because of its history.

The fact that it has been revived by entrepreneurs, well-meaning advocates, and closet racists doesn’t change its history or its purpose: It will undermine public education. It may “save” a child here or there, while most children will be lost in a free-market system of competition in which the public abandons its responsibility to provide the best possible education for all children. 

We cannot let that happen. If choice were the answer, we would all look to Milwaukee as a national model, which has had vouchers, charters, and public schools since 1990. Twenty-six years is time enough for an experiment to demonstrate its worth. Milwaukee today has a public system that disproportionately enrolls the high-needs children that the other schools don’t want. It is also one of the lowest performing urban districts in the nation on the federal tests. Not even Trump or DeVos would have the nerve to call it a national model.

Our public schools need our support. Trump and DeVos are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their sheep’s clothing is transparent. No one should be fooled by their phony advocacy for poor kids or education. They advocate for an unregulated free-market in education that will leave most children behind, especially those who are the most disadvantaged by their social and economic circumstances.

They must not be permitted to destroy public education. They must be stopped: by parents, teachers, students, and everyone of us who attended public schools. In every community, we must fight for our democracy and stop the raid on our public treasury.

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