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Education Opinion

Will the Government Protect Student Interests?

By David B. Cohen — January 11, 2017 4 min read

This blog, and the book that shares its name, were conceived as opportunities to focus primarily on the positives in education, such as a culture of gratitude and stronger communication in schools. As we watch the Trump administration take shape, it’s challenging to stay positive, and I’ve had a major case of writer’s block as this day approached, when Betsy DeVos was originally scheduled to begin confirmation hearings to become the next secretary of education (now postponed until January 17). Those of us who often disagreed with key elements of education policy under the Obama administration now face a different set of challenges as we anticipate the next four years.

In education, we have a couple of clear policy ideas to examine. The big push for expanded vouchers will be quite a challenge to execute and will not bring any benefits to public education overall. While some students and families and some schools will benefit from such policies, the net effect will be to weaken public education, and that’s really the goal in the first place if you look at the record of Betsy DeVos. Her confirmation hearing was originally scheduled for January 11, but whether she ends up in the Trump Cabinet or not, the central policy goal is evident. Trump has also talked about ending Common Core (though it’s unclear if he understands what it is or how it works). The demise of CCSS would primarily hurt publishers and consultants, while merely causing some discontinuity for teachers and students, so that’s less of a concern. The real problem is that there’s no sign that a Trump administration would show any interest in strengthening public education: the GOP control of Congress and the White House spells budget cuts for education, and observers expect a decreased interest in federal protection of students’ civil rights.

But given that education is much more under state control than federal, the potential issues with Trump’s education policies pale in comparison to the broader risks presented by many other Trump policy priorities. As I take in everything that might happen to cause appreciable harm to our students, not to mention the country in general, I find it challegning to simply write an education blog that turns a blind eye to so many other issues with a direct impact on the lives of students. So I’ve decided to put some of those other concerns out there, come what may. For those who might disagree, I welcome the debate, but ask that commenters focus on specific issues and how our students are directly affected.

Health care - The GOP is intent on repealing the Affordable Care Act quickly, with no clear replacement plan. Planned Parenthood is also likely to see its federal funding slashed due to the politics around abortion, but with negative effects on their ability to offer preventative screenings and procedures that save lives. Bottom line: expect to see less access to health care for students and families, if not an increase in preventable hospitalizations and deaths.

Immigration - While Trump the candidate talked about eliminating Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, he offered vague reassurances last month that he might offer some alternative solution for “dreamers"—undocumented children. Meanwhile, the open hostility of the campaign rhetoric has given rise to more open hostility on campuses, and the policy uncertainty weighs heavily on all concerned. Bottom line: even before any deportations begin, this is a challenging time to be a student born outside the US, or to be perceived that way regardless of the truth.

Environmental regulation - I’ll set aside issues of climate change, given that we can’t know for sure what effect reducing carbon emissions in the US would have on global warming trends. We can expect that Trump policies will pave the way for more burning of fossil fuels. Due to either rolled-back regulations or lax enforcement efforts by a gutted EPA (or both), we’ll see less effort to protect our air, water, and soil. Bottom line: more environmental toxins, which are particularly damaging to children.

Family stability for LGBTQ people - Those close to Trump, and in many GOP leadership positions around the country, are openly hostile to LGBTQ individuals and families. Legalized discrimination based on “religious exemptions” and “bathroom bills” will have some negative effects; a Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice may cause even more concern in the long run. Bottom line: LGBTQ students and parents, whose families have made civil rights progress in recent years, are facing regression in many parts of the country.

Civil rights, voting - Civil rights and voting rights will be given short shrift. Trump himself has lied about voter fraud, diverting attention from the actual problem of voter disenfranchisement in the post-Voting Rights Act era. Senator Jeff Sessions, nominated to be Attorney General, once prosecuted alleged voter fraud in a case tinged with racist implications; that case is only one of the reasons that over 1,400 American law school faculty members have publicly opposed Sessions’ nomination. Bottom line: the federal government is likely to remain idle in the face of GOP efforts to disenfranchise minority voters in many states, and less inclined to investigate or prosecute when civil rights are infringed upon.

In my next post, I’ll try to return to the positives. For now, it’s hard to avoid talking about the appearance that we’re about to have a federal government that in many ways will undermine students’ interests and wellbeing.

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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