Throughout the past year, we have heard broad assertions that U.S. public schools are failing low-income children, suggestions that teachers are a major part of the problem, and pledges from President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to fix the problem in a business-like manner.
Missing from all of these discussions—and from many similar ones under former education secretary Arne Duncan—is a fundamental truth. Namely, that all children need, and will thrive, if provided with certain basic resources and supports. And, as a corollary, that education policymakers should not design programs suited to “those children,” but rather advance strategies that ensure equal opportunities, and experiences, for all our children.
As brain research documents, every child begins to learn at birth. The problem that many children and their schools face is that the resources needed to maximize that learning are unevenly distributed. While most professional parents have jobs that provide paid maternity leave, which enables them to bond with their new babies, working-class and poor parents rarely do, and our narrow federal laws do not help. Low-income and working class parents also often struggle to afford safe, stable child care, let alone the stimulating, enriching early education that will prepare children for kindergarten. This results in enormous income-based gaps in school readiness.
Policies, then, should ensure that high-quality infant and toddler care and preschool are accessible to all families. Merely providing tax deductions to offset the costs of child care, as the first daughter Ivanka Trump has advocated, would benefit mostly higher-income parents, while failing to help families that really need it.
Other education basics that parents with means take for granted include well-prepared teachers and support for students to navigate the college preparation and applications processes. Proposed budgetary measures could put these basics even further out of reach for many poor and minority students than they already are.
What parents with the means and ability want and do for their children is what we, as a society, should demand for all children."
The chasm between what is clearly beneficial to privileged children and what the Trump administration deems worthy of investment for those who are less lucky is starkly visible in its budget priorities. Secretary DeVos has roundly endorsed President Trump’s proposed budget, which would slash spending for programs that train and support teachers and help disadvantaged students prepare for, finance, and work their way through college.
In addition to questioning the value of school meals, White House Office of Budget and Management director Mike Mulvaney has disputed the effectiveness of 21st Century Learning Center grants, which support after-school and summer enrichment programs for children in high-poverty schools. Such programs range from tutoring and help with homework to building Lego robots and constructing greenhouses or solar panels—exactly the kind of STEM skills that are in high demand, but are less likely to be available to low-income students. It is hard to imagine the president or first lady suggesting that such activities would not be valuable for their son, whose private school offers no end to enrichment programs.
The Obama and Trump administrations both promoted expanded choice, in the form of charter schools (and, now, a push for more vouchers to pay for private school tuition), to alleviate inequities in children’s educational opportunities. Reasonable people can certainly disagree as to how well such school choice policies achieve that objective, but they should not be OK with investing public dollars in schools that deprive students of such core experiences as music, art, and physical education, or that subject children to abusive or demeaning behavior in the name of structure and discipline. This is especially the case given that the private schools that both the current president and predecessor chose for their own children prioritize nurturing experiences and enriching curricula.
Every child learns better, and is more likely to thrive, when they have certain basics, including nutritious meals, access to a pediatrician, safe spaces to play, and hands-on opportunities to explore. David Kirp, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, frames this as the Golden Rule: What parents with the means and ability want and do for their children is what we, as a society, should demand for all children. The current president and first lady, like their predecessors, shine a spotlight every day on what children can aspire to when their parents have those means and abilities. It’s high time that this rule became the guidepost for U.S. public education.