“For too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”
This rather definitive damnation of the American public school system was uttered only a few days ago by none other that oh-so-divisive POTUS, Donald Trump. Not content to pass judgement on the system in a simple tweet, the Donald made this declaration one of the cornerstone moments of his State of the Union address. Trump used the moment to declare that he would be pushing for Congress to pass something called the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act. That Act would allow individuals and corporations to provide scholarships for students to attend private or religious schools, and receive a dollar for dollar tax rebate in return.
In a nutshell, he was declaring that he wants to make it easier for parents to send their kids to private schools as opposed to public ones.
Now, it probably should not surprise anyone that Trump, who made his gazillions by leveraging his fortune to win over political support for his various real estate dealings, should be very much in favour of reducing the role of government in every aspect of society, including education. After all, had Trump not had to deal with all those pesky bureaucracies and special interest groups, the making of said gazillions would have been remarkably easier.
As well, when it comes to privatizing education, Trump has been nothing if not consistent. Through his billionaire education secretary, Betsy Devos, the number of charter schools (semi-private institutions that compete with public schools for tax-payers dollars) has grown almost exponentially in the United States. Although showing no better results that traditional public schools, charter schools have allowed for an unprecedented marketization of public education, with students becoming victims of corporate greed and loose governmental oversight.
Despite the major issues that her push for privatization has caused, Devos (who has been referred to as the least qualified Secretary of Education in US history) has also remained committed to the cause of expansion. This despite the fact that the charter school industry has become a playground for financial irregularities and out right fraud. According to one recent report, over $1 billion has gone to charter schools in the US that have either closed down, or never actually opened in the first place.
Now, for pure libertarians (people who prefer free markets over any good-for-everybody social construct) this is simply the price of doing business. Schools that can survive, do, and those that don’t shut down. The consumer can always adjust, and when one school closes, another will open to meet the need. That is after all, how the markets work.
The model, quite obviously, gives no concern to the impact on the students themselves. It is not their learning nor development that is key here, but rather, their capacity as consumers. If a school shutting down has a negative impact on a child’s ability to read or if the child loses out on a significant relationship with a peer or, heaven forbid, a teacher, they should have exercised better discretion in choosing the school in the first place. “Buyer beware” and all that.
However, for those of us who see the danger in adopting free market thinking to such a traditionally altruistic endeavour as public education, Trump’s declaration about failing government schools is nothing short of chilling.
Language, as we all know is a very powerful thing. There is probably no better example in modern times than Trump’s very own “fake news” tag line. By declaring any story he disagrees with as ‘fake’ Trump has managed to cast a fairly wide shadow of doubt on anything produced by the fourth estate. This obviously has some pretty serious ramifications for the American democratic system. By declaring all public schools as ‘government’ schools, he may very well accomplish the same thing in regards to education.
I firmly believe now that this is the true reason for the United Conservative Party’s decision awhile back to remove the word “public” from a number of school jurisdictions in Alberta. Leader Jason Kenney has made no secret of wanting to increase options for Albertan parents when it comes to schooling, and has already stated his plans to increase the number of charter schools in that Province. That move will be much easier if the public feels disconnected from public schools.
Here in Atlantic Canada, the strongest calls for a more privatized version of public education have come from the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). Almost since inception, AIMS has been pushing for the opening of charter schools. In 2010, AIMS supporter Paul W. Bennett wrote a report for the organization calling for the abolition of elected school boards. In 2016, that same paper was used to bolster a resolution, passed at the Liberal Party annual general meeting, to seek that end. Then, in 2018, that vision was realized when Dr. Avis Glaze, hired by the same Liberal government, did abolish elected school boards, effectively removing public voice from public education.
And that is why Trump’s words chill me so. With the removal of elected boards, it is questionable whether any English language school in Nova Scotia can actually be considered public. Every school, it could be argued, is now a “government school”.
The phrase doesn’t exactly conjure up visions of warmth and nurture. Quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, if we referred to our police force as “The Government Force”, the associated images wax into the realm of down right insidiousness. I am not sure that the average activist will be quite as passionate about defending “government education” from corporate takeover, should the re-branding prove successful.
For years, privatizationists here in Canada have been trying to seize control of our education system for their own gains, thankfully without a great deal of success. That narrative may very well change, however, if the reformists can frame themselves as trying to wrest control of education from the government, as opposed to from the public.
It will be interesting to see how quickly Trump’s term becomes a mainstay mantra in the fight to privatize public schools.
Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, Thursday, February 13th.