In his first speech to the nation as president, the newly inaugurated Donald Trump painted a dark picture of an America that has left struggling middle-class families behind, including a public school system that spends big while getting poor results for students.
“Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves,” Trump said in his Jan. 20 address from the rostrum on the west side of the U.S. Capitol. “But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. ... An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
Trump—a real estate developer, reality-TV star, and political novice who has pledged to “drain the swamp” of special interests in Washington—also promised to make Washington a place where the needs of people, not politicians, are paramount.
“While they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land,” Trump said.
The president made no mention of school choice in his speech. But during the 2016 campaign, he pitched a $20 billion school voucher program. His choice for U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos—a prominent advocate and financial benefactor for school choice from Michigan—shows he’s serious about expanding school choice now that he’s in the White House. And the tough language in his inaugural address suggests he’ll sell the proposal by making the case that public schools are failing.
Anne McCandless, an Advanced Placement government teacher at Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C., who brought her class to Washington to see the inauguration, said she felt stung by Trump’s remarks.
“I’m offended because I’m a 25-year veteran teacher, and so he is telling me that I haven’t done anything,” she said. “There’s always room for improvement. There’s always room to change, but that’s insulting.”
Bobby Howard, a social studies teacher at Gainesville Middle School in Georgia, who also attended the inauguration with his students, said the reality at his charter school doesn’t match the president’s rhetoric.
“I know he said the system is a disaster. I don’t think it’s a disaster,” Howard said. But he added that resources for education could be better distributed.
But Tom Macluskie, who retired in May after 26 years of teaching social studies at Gainesville Middle and joined his former colleagues and students on the National Mall, is hopeful that Trump can be a change agent.
“I think he’s going to do a very, very good job,” said Macluskie. “He’s definitely not politically correct, but that may work to his advantage. ... This is almost an experiment.”
Though Trump took sharp aim at the failings of American education, the national picture on student outcomes is a complex one. Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, and graduation gaps between minority and white students are closing. But in 2015, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, fell in math and reading for the first time in more than two decades.
On the funding side, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on reducing poverty and inequality, found that 35 states provided less overall state funding for education in 2014 than in 2008, before the Great Recession hit housing prices, sending down waves of state and local budget cuts to school districts. In 27 states, per-pupil funding fell over the same period.
The federal government, which Trump will now lead, hasn’t made up for those cuts. Since 2011, spending on major K-12 programs—such as Title I grants for disadvantaged students and aid for special education—has been relatively flat.
Trump’s populist message of bringing change to Washington was a staple of his campaign speeches. But Jack Jennings, who served for decades as a top aide to Democrats on the House education committee, said he found it hard to square the new president’s promises with his choice of DeVos, who Jennings said had stumbled in showing her knowledge of basic education polices, such as federal education laws,.
“I’m incredulous that he says he’s going to bring about better schools with a small group of billionaires as his advisers,” Jennings said. “He says he is going to change schools with a woman who has no idea how schools operate.”
But Jay Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, said that while Trump used an “obvious overstatement” to describe the state of America’s schools, his views are pretty common.
“It does seem to signal that he thinks the challenges in our education are not solved by increased spending,” Greene said. “And that is not an extreme view. That’s a common view, even if not the majority view.”
The inauguration itself wasn’t the only big event happening in Washington last week. Thousands of people—including at least 1,000 teachers’ union members—headed to Washington for a protest event the next day, billed as the Women’s March. Holly Daniels, a 1st grade teacher at Riddle Elementary in Lansing, Mich., planned to hop on a bus for a 10-hour trip to the capital.
“We have a businessman as a governor in Michigan, and it has not been good,” Daniels said. “I’m concerned that we’re going to see things that have happened in Michigan at a national level,” including an explosion of charter schools, cuts to education, and public-health problems like the contaminated-water crisis in Flint.
“A year later, these people still don’t have clean water,” Daniels said. “I’m concerned about Donald Trump’s [rhetoric] about women, sentiments about minorities.”
Participating in the march “makes me feel like I’m doing something other than sitting at home and complaining,” she said. “I’m looking forward.”
Staff Writer Daarel Burnette II contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Trump Calls Nation’s Schools ‘Flush With Cash,’ Failing