When Donald Trump was elected, America did not just get Donald Trump. His cabinet boasts faces already known in their respective arenas, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Secretary of Defense James Mattis. But Trump’s cabinet also includes some new faces that have little to no experience in the field they are called to lead. One of these new leaders is Mrs. Elisabeth DeVos: United States Secretary of Education.
Prior to her appointment as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was the chair of the Alliance for School Choice, an organization which fights for school vouchers. The theory is that these school vouchers, distributed to a wide number of students, would increase overall education quality for those students who use their vouchers to attend private or charter schools. In essence, this system encourages parents to send their children to private institutions rather than public ones.
The problem with this system is the competition it festers between private and public education. When the government is providing subsidies to students for a private education, it is taking money away from a public system that is already failing its pupils at unbearable rates. Trump’s 2018 budget has already dropped spending on education 14%. In Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, two districts stand drastically apart in funding. Weston, the second richest zip code in the United States, is home to five public schools: three elementary, two middle, and one high school. (1) Their budget for the 2016-2017 school year was set at $49,317,488. (2) About 30 miles east of Weston is New Haven, the second largest city in Connecticut and the home of Yale University. New Haven boasts 48 public schools, including ten high schools. New Haven’s 2016-2017 budget was set at $66,338,696. (3)
While the New Haven’s budget is slightly less than $20 million more on paper, this budget is serving nearly ten times the amount of institutions. In Weston, each pupil is budgeted $20,000. (2) In New Haven, that number is $2,946.(3)
Even before DeVos’s policy is enacted and before Trump’s budget cut goes into effect, students in poor, urban communities like New Haven are suffering. While DeVos and her team claim school vouchers are going to make private education accessible to a wider range of students, the reality is that there will not be enough room for the majority of students in these institutions. Private schools tend to pride themselves on smaller class sizes, and therefore more selective enrollment. Even if a handful of students make the transition from public to private through the means of vouchers, a large majority of students will remain in public schools, and most of these students will be those in poor, urban areas. With cuts to funding and increased competition with private institutions, public education does not stand a chance.
So how does this affect American democracy on a national level? The change will be slow but steady. The demolition of public schools will further the gap in education level across the country. In her book The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett discusses the heightened importance elites are putting on intelligence as an indicator of wealth and prosperity. This goal, and the goal of higher education, will become even more unattainable to those students who remain in suffering public institutions.
With the quality of public education on the decline, the cyclical nature of “getting ahead” will become further inflamed. Those blessed with private, high quality education will continue to have a leg up on those who simply cannot afford to put themselves in a position of success. Conservative media and rhetoric loves to focus on the one in a million exception who prospers under extremely trying circumstances and frame it with a “you can do anything you set your mind to” slogan. But these policies are discriminatory when put into the wrong hands. For the good of democracy, America must keep faith (and funding) in the public school system.
(4) Currid Halkett, Elizabeth. The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Princeton University Press, 2017. Print.
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