Trump's Wrong about the Schools

“(A)n education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” President Trump broadcast this biting condemnation in his inaugural address.

A short time later, Trump proposed cutting education spending by 13%. Squeezing extravagance out of public schools apparently is his goal.

Trump’s second step was to save students from being “deprived of all knowledge.” Getting them out of regular public schools and into private schools and semi-private charter schools is his solution. He wants to take $1.4 billion from regular public schools to finance this shift.

Trump’s beliefs about spending and student achievement are outright wrong, and his remedy is based on ideology, not evidence.

“Flush with cash”

Based on his lifestyle, Donald Trump certainly knows the meaning of extravagance. This must make it difficult for him to understand the financial reality faced by others.

Public schools experienced decreases in expenditures each year from 2008-9 to 2012-13, after adjusting for inflation. In 2013-14, there was a one percent increase. So, Trump’s definition of “flush with cash” must mean sustained budget cutting. This view certainly turns reality on its head.

For more than a decade, the lack of funds has been identified by the public as the greatest problem facing the public schools. This challenge far outpaces any other problem in public education according to the highly regarded Phi Delta Kappa poll.

A mistaken view of achievement

Not only is Trump wrong regarding education funding, he is also mistaken about how much students are learning.

Ninety percent of American students attend public schools. Because of economic and demographic changes, the student body is increasingly composed of young people who have greater needs than those who proceeded them.

In 2000, fifteen percent of school-aged children were from families living in poverty. By 2014, that proportion grew to twenty percent. The public schools also have more students who need to learn English and more children with disabilities than ten to fifteen years ago.

In spite of these greater challenges, teachers are working hard to help students. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress during this period generally rose or were level. For example, fourth and eighth graders scored significantly higher in mathematics in 2015 than in 2000.

Beginning about 2008 and continuing to near the present, scores have not risen as much as in previous years or have slightly declined. These years are those when the schools were making budget cuts since they had decreased funding. It is reasonable to speculate that this turmoil had an effect on learning.

In any case, students have not been “deprived of all knowledge,” as Trump asserts. The schools are holding their own or doing better while working with more students facing greater challenges and while having less money.

A single-shot, unproven remedy

Trump’s simplistic solution for improvement is to get students out of regular public schools and into private and semi-private schools. It is like saying that test scores are higher in North and South Dakota and so students should move to the Dakotas.

Attending a private school does not magically transform students. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education released an analysis comparing student achievement in public and private schools. The conclusion was that test scores in reading and mathematics in the two sectors were very similar, when adjusted for student characteristics.

That finding is reinforced by reviewing the academic achievement of students attending private schools on government provided tuition vouchers: no clear-cut advantage appears for those students.

Similarly for students attending charter schools, those students generally do not have higher academic achievement than comparable students in regular public schools. There are good charter schools, and there are good regular public schools. There are also bad schools in both sectors.

So, after all, it might be more productive to move low-performing students to public schools in the Dakotas, rather than to push them into private and semi-private schools.

Trump’s proposal is another in a long line of single-shot or “magic-wand” solutions to transform the schools. Real improvement isn’t that easy.

As the nation’s state legislators concluded:

Recent reforms have under-performed because of silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches. Meanwhile, high-performing countries implement policies and practices and build comprehensive systems that look drastically different from ours, leading them to the success that has eluded states.

Conclusion

Trump is wrong in his diagnosis of public education spending and of students’ academic achievement. His third mistake is his remedy which lacks proof that it will bring about broad improvement.

By maligning the public schools and by misstating the facts, Trump is harming American education. His conduct will produce the exact opposite of what he says he wants because he is encouraging a negative atmosphere and a disdain for teachers and students.

American students need to do better in school to be ready for the more competitive world they will face as adults. Decades of various attempts at school improvement have shown that improvement comes about through a comprehensive approach and a long-term commitment. If President Trump can’t understand that, he should leave this issue to others.

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