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‘Government Schools’ or Public Schools? Trump, DeVos, and the Language of School Choice

By Evie Blad — February 05, 2020 7 min read
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President Donald Trump didn’t coin the phrase “government schools.” But he gave it a big stage and a broader public audience during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, when he used it to urge Congress to back a bill that would provide $5 billion in tax credits to support scholarships for private school admission, tutoring, and other educational services.

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” he said, championing a bill that has had little traction in Congress. “Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”

Some fans of private school choice liked his use of the term. However, public school supporters saw it not as a benign descriptor, but as a carefully crafted pejorative.

So how did it turn up in such a high-profile address? And what might the president have been trying to communicate through his word choice?

The phrase dates back decades to the earliest origins of the school choice movement. It’s been used by both economists like Milton Friedman, who argued free market ideas would strengthen education, and by proponents of faith-based education. “Government schools” even once turned up in the writings of a pope. Today, it’s most notably used by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and groups that fervently advocate for alternatives to traditional public schools.

To listeners like public school organizations and teachers’ union leaders, the use of the term seemed intentionally provocative, especially in light of conservatives’ distrust of government and desire to reduce its reach. The term also seems to paint some public schools with a broad, impersonal brush.

And the word choice sought to change the orientation of the debate, said Kevin Welner, professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education and director of the National Education Policy Center, an organization that is critical of private school choice programs. Rather than presenting vouchers or tax-credit scholarships as an option to allow families to select an alternative to a public school, Trump’s language painted the failure to provide such options as limiting students’ freedom.

“It’s a focus group tested term that is attempting to reframe what we understand as our societal obligation to our kids,” Welner said.

“The counter rhetoric would agree with the basic idea that there are a lot of kids who do not have good educational opportunities and that their public schools are not helping very much and are, in some cases, hurting,” he said. “But they would say: Why not take the $5 billion a year that President Trump wants to put into these neo vouchers and put it instead into educational interventions in these schools that are of concern —toward educational interventions that have been shown to help children?”

But others said the term was the most appropriate and accurate one Trump could have used.

“Calling these schools ‘public’ is inaccurate for a few reasons,” wrote Corey DeAngelis, the executive director at Educational Freedom Institute, in a Washington Examiner opinion piece. “For one, these schools are not open to all members of the public. Because children are generally assigned to schools in the United States by residence, government-run schools regularly exclude students based on their ZIP codes.”

Origins of “Government Schools”

Friedman notably used the phrase “government schools” in his influential 1955 paper on government and schools.

“In terms of effects, the denationalization of education would widen the range of choice available to parents,” he wrote. “Given, as at present, that parents can send their children to government schools with out special payment, very few can or will send them to other schools unless they too are subsidized.”

The phrase has a long history in both scholarship about school choice and in messaging policies like private school vouchers, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“It’s had this history that’s been tied to one sector that’s really animated by economic principles and ideas, kind of the wonky economic market stuff like the Milton Friedman folks,” he said. “And then there’s the part of that community that’s been animated by religious autonomy and prayer in schools. Those folks aren’t necessarily the same, but they both use of the term. And I think Trump’s more instinctually reacting to the elements of that that are tied to protecting religion and the rights of institutions and inviduals to act based on their religious beliefs.”

DeVos, an outspoken supporter of publicly funded private-school vouchers and tax credit-scholarships who has privately contributed to advocacy groups, has used the term, or something similar, when speaking to both ideological wings of the choice movement.

On her back-to-school tour last fall, she sought to drum up support for the federal Education Freedom Scholarships proposal by telling parents that, if their “government-assigned school isn’t working for your child, you can take him or her anywhere else.”

But, in a 2018 speech to the Catholic Alfred E. Smith Foundation, she quoted Pope Pius XI’s 1929 Encyclical on Christian Education.

“Accordingly, unjust and unlawful is any monopoly, educational or scholastic, which, physically or morally, forces families to make use of government schools, contrary to the dictates of their Christian conscience, or contrary even to their legitimate preferences,” that writing said.

DeVos, who herself attended faith-based schools, linked the pope’s writings from decades ago to U.S. policy today.

“There are many in Washington who seem to think that because of their power there, they are in a position to make decisions on behalf of parents everywhere,” she said. “In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home, the child becomes a constituent and the state replaces the family.”

DeVos, or one of their aides at the U.S. Department of Education, likely had some input into the framing of Trump’s speech. State of the Union speeches are generally drafted with input from a wide array of government agencies. Trump has also used the phrase many times before, in speeches dating back to his campaign.

The word choice comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a major education case that could open the door for more state-level efforts to publicly fund private schools. DeVos sat in the front row for oral arguments last month as the Trump administration argued in support of Montana parents who argued Montana parents who argued in a major education case before the U.S. Supreme Court that the state violated their religious liberty when it prohibited recipients of state-level tax-credit scholarships from using them at religious schools.

Changing the Debate

Word choice is very intentional in policy debates, including debates over education, Welner said. He pointed to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which developed a long-term strategy to advocate for private school choice in Michigan. In a 1999 primer, that organization advised careful messaging and school choice. It laid out a four-fold justification for the use of the term “government schools,” arguing that the term was “a more accurate and descriptive way to distinguish politicized, tax-funded schools from privately funded schools and forms of education.”

“If you shift the discourse, then the policies will follow,” Welner said.

The phrase has also been popularized in state-level debates, like arguments over school funding in Kansas.

It’s useful for Trump to paint public schools as a broad, impersonal institution, Henig said. That’s because public polling shows that Americans generally support their local public schools, he said.

Data from PDK International’s annual poll about public perceptions of education finds respondents consistently rate their own local public school more highly than the nation’s public education system as a whole.

And the terminology also serves to link a very specific policy area—education—to broader, more general themes Trump has sought to emphasize in his presidency, Henig said. Those themes include deregulation and a distrust of government institutions.

“People like a president, but also like a governor or even a mayor, they’re running on multiple issues at the same time,” Henig said. “And in these big national battles, it’s really attractive to a candidate, whether other on the right or left have some themes that cut across issues. People can see the connection, right? ‘Government schools’ connects very well with socialism, socialized medicine, right? ‘We’re the guys who are against government intrusion and bureaucracy. We are the guys who are for you being empowered to make choices that matter for you.’ So it makes it easier to tie together some disparate positions.”

Photo: School choice supporters from eight schools demonstrate front of the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments for Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in January--Graeme Sloan/Education Week