Trump's 'education freedom' plan is an attack on public schools. That's un-American.

Derek W. Black, Opinion contributor

"Education freedom" — the Trump administration’s new buzzwords — is not about good education for the public. It’s about ending all that public education stands for. The administration won’t claim that precise goal because it’s politically toxic, including with a huge chunk of its own base. Instead, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have carefully aimed at core aspects of public education without ever formally declaring war. But peel away the coded language and convoluted tax schemes, and the only thing left is an agenda incompatible with public education.

That coded language was on full display in Trump's State of the Union address: “American children have been trapped in failing government schools.” Private school choice, he said, will “rescue these students.” 

"Government schools" refers to public schools in general. The administration hasn’t reserved the phrase for struggling schools. It paints the entire public school system.

It resuscitated the phrase from a multidecade effort to get government to subsidize religious education. After the movement faltered, voucher advocates began using this language under the banner of helping disadvantaged students. In both cases, the point is to equate public schools with all the negative connotations government conjures —waste, bureaucracy and liberty-crushing control.  

'Government schools' vs freedom

Now the administration is taking its rhetoric even further, casting government schools as the enemy of education freedom. Yet, that’s where the coded language breaks down, because the administration’s education freedom does not actually mean educational opportunities that free students. It doesn’t mean securing a quality education — private or public — for every student or opening doors of opportunity that were once closed. 

Education freedom means something much narrower: exiting public school with the assistance of state and federal dollars. The education quality students receive after they exit, the segregation it might produce, and the exclusion and discrimination students might face are not matters the administration is worried about.

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020

Its tax schemes are just as antithetical to public education. Florida is supposed to be the model. When the Florida Supreme Court held that the state could not use public school money on private school vouchers, Florida developed a tax credit workaround. For every dollar donated to the state’s private tuition fund, Florida gives donors $1 back on their income tax bill. This allowed Florida to create the illusion it was not raiding public schools. 

Reality defies the ruse. Florida has steadily increased tax credits for private schools for a decade. The cost in tax revenue is approaching $1 billion a year. During the same period, Florida has cut public school funding by 22% per student. Florida’s public school funding now ranks 41st in the nation

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Trump now proposes a federal system of tax credits just like Florida. Until that happens, the administration is pushing states to copy Florida on their own. 

Last summer, for instance, the administration lobbied hard for a new school voucher bill in Tennessee, pushing it to victory by the very narrowest of margins. This year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is proposing an even more curious step. Rather than the state fully meeting student needs for mental health counselors, he will be seeking “private donations.” In other words, the state will not meet its constitutional duty to provide public education. It will rely on the private sector instead.  

Public education binds us together

Time and again, history has shown that the private sector, even when well intentioned, doesn’t have the capacity to systematically provide education to all kids. That’s why we created state systems of public education two centuries ago. And even though public schools have perpetrated their own fair share of failure and inequality, the fault is not lack of capacity. It’s lack of public will.

The dominant story of public education is not failure. The story has been expanding our commitments in public education to find solutions to the nation’s greatest challenges.  

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When deciding how the nation would expand westward and form new states in the late 1780s, Congress divided every square inch of undeveloped land into square townships and counties, reserving the center plots of land for schools and ones on the perimeter for general school resources. Congress directed that these schools were to “forever be  encouraged.” 

When the nation sought to lift poor whites out of illiteracy and blacks into citizenship at the end of the Civil War, Congress demanded that state constitutions guarantee uniform school systems that provided education to all children. To fund them, they mandated taxes. When the nation was struggling to break free of its Jim Crow discrimination, public education was chosen to lead the way — even as resistors explicitly tried to end public schooling (and replace it with vouchers).

Trump and DeVos have a vision of private education and individual freedom that is more than misleading; it’s dangerous. They are sowing the notion that a fundamental pillar of our democracy is antiquated and oppressive. The truth is that many kids will lose what little freedom they have — and the one social thread that still binds us together will fray even more — if we buy what they are selling.

Derek W. Black is a law professor at the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Twitter: @DerekWBlack

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump attack on 'government schools' undermines pillar of US democracy