In State of the Union, Trump makes clear his aversion to public schools

By Valerie Strauss 

Feb. 4, 2020

President Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. (LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)

If for some reason you haven’t been clear about what President Trump thinks about traditional public schools, consider what he said about them in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

There was this: “For too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”

What’s a “government school” to Trump? A public school in a traditional public school district.

Then there was this, with a reference to a student in the audience: “Now, I call on the Congress to give 1 million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received. Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

Trump urged Congress to pass that legislation, which would create a $5 billion federal tax credit program that would fund scholarships to private and religious schools. The scholarships would be funded by individuals and businesses who want to privately donate but who would then receive a federal tax credit on a dollar-for-dollar basis.AD

Trump spent most of his education-related comments on the subject of “school choice,” which he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have put at the top of their education agenda. DeVos has said her chief priority was expanding alternatives to traditional public schools, which she once called “a dead end.”

Betsy DeVos and her allies are trying to redefine ‘public education.’ Critics call it ‘absurd.’

DeVos and like-minded school choice supporters have long disparaged public schools as government schools, and they have been attempting to redefine “public education” to mean any school that receives any public funding. In this framework, a religious school that discriminates against LGBTQ students but accepts students who pay tuition with help from a program that uses public money would be considered public.

Much of the research on vouchers shows that private schools do no better and often worse in terms of student academic achievement than public schools. But DeVos has said her priority is in expanding school choice, not holding private schools to account for providing an excellent education.AD

Critics who oppose the privatization of public education slammed Trump’s education comments even before he finished delivering his speech Tuesday night.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States, said in a statement: “Tonight, Donald Trump once again put the agenda of Betsy DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education in U.S. history, front and center in his State of the Union by renewing his push to divert scarce funding from the public schools that 90 percent of students attend into private school voucher programs.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, said in a statement: “Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos have made no secret of their antipathy for public education. Rather than strengthen the cornerstone of our democracy and the chief enabler of pluralism and opportunity, they choose to defund and destabilize it. No amount of rebranding vouchers and privatization as ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ changes that.”AD

In his State of the Union, Trump also called for more vocational and technical education in high school and mentioned the importance of the constitutional right for prayer in schools.

While his education comments were a small part of his speech, they were significantly more than he offered in his 2019 State of the Union, which mentioned education policy in a single sentence.

Here’s the education-related text from the State of the Union speech, as provided by the White House: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. Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools. To rescue these students, 18 states have created school choice in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The programs are so popular that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists. One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth-grader from Philadelphia. Janiyah’s mom, Stephanie, is a single parent. She would do anything to give her daughter a better future. But last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s Governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice for 50,000 children.Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery this evening. But there is more to their story. Janiyah, I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice!Now, I call on the Congress to give 1 million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received. Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.—-My budget also contains an exciting vision for our nation’s high schools. Tonight, I ask the Congress to support our students and back my plan to offer vocational and technical education in every single high school in America.To expand equal opportunity, I am also proud that we achieved record and permanent funding for our nation’s historically black colleges and universities.—-My administration is also defending religious liberty, and that includes the constitutional right to pray in public schools. In America, we do not punish prayer. We do not tear down crosses. We do not ban symbols of faith. We do not muzzle preachers and pastors. In America, we celebrate faith. We cherish religion. We lift our voices in prayer, and we raise our sights to the glory of God!

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